An imposing figure: downtown’s landmark Miami Tower at dusk

At this time of year, I.M. Pei’s circa-1987 Miami Tower—continually bathed in light—is transformed into a ritual beacon of holiday cheer, a 47-story Christmas tree adorned with merry snowflake-shaped lights. In other seasons, the color palette varies from basic white to the full spectrum of the rainbow. In fact, it’s actually possible to “buy” a color for the night; for $3,500 or so, you can create your very own monolith of light.

Night or day, the $175 million Miami Tower is a masterpiece that leeches out the architectural validity of all surrounding buildings. Facing southeast, the half-moon-shaped, cascading building becomes slightly narrower at the top, as if Pei had snapped out a bisected telescope for inspiration. Its northeast portion features flat exterior walls, a graceful cliff facing the hinterlands of Miami. On the 11th floor is a quadrant- shaped terrace equipped with a reflecting pool. From the shifting perspective of a speeding car on I-95 or Biscayne Boulevard, the building never stops slipping into yet another equation of perfectly pitched symmetry.

It’s easy to see why Miami Vice used images of the tower in full luminescent glory as a pulsing semiotic shorthand for the city. One building, cast as a featured player in the opening credits of an overripe television show, captured the gorgeous— and grotesque—excess of this city forever. Aptly enough, the Miami Tower came to embody a different strain of wild and woolly Miami: the rogue banking culture of the 1980s. Yet again, Miami Vice and the real Miami had a whole artmirrors- life thing going on.

The Miami Tower began life as the Miami World Trade Center, meant to serve the adjacent James L. Knight Center: The WTC group brought in I.M. Pei originally. But any longtime Miamian refers to Pei’s masterwork as the CenTrust Tower, a kind of habitual tribute to CenTrust founder David Paul, who gave the building its reputation for opulence. Miami has always been the kind of place where mysterious strangers come to town and, in about a week and a half, are transformed into kings of the city. Paul was actually a Miami boy whose family moved to New York; he returned as an ambitious real estate developer seizing an opportunity in the banking realm. In 1983, he made a $525 million offer on the stumbling Dade Savings and Loan, with assets of $2.2 billion. He rechristened it CenTrust Bank, invested in junk bonds bought from the now-fallen Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert, and six years later, the institution was worth $11 billion.

Paul set to spending his own—and the bank’s—money, a surefire path to social success here. He put a helicopter pad on the roof, bought a bunch of junky old master paintings, filled the executive dining room with Baccarat crystal, and had gold-plated fittings on his 95-foot yacht, the Grand Cru. For one dinner party, Paul flew in six French chefs. To honor Elizabeth Taylor’s visit to Miami, he bathed his monument to greed in lavender-tinged light. In 1990, the CenTrust orgy collapsed amid the S&L crisis, which also brought down the Lincoln Savings & Loan empire of Charles H. Keating, Jr. Paul faced 100 criminal indictments, the bank was seized, and taxpayers dropped $2 billion; it was the fourth-largest S&L failure in US history. Given the recent spate of bank bailouts, the CenTrust collapse was chump change: These days, the government would have insisted Paul accept a trillion or two, and checked in later to see if he needed any more money.

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