By Tom Austin | August 31, 2011 | Lifestyle
|The Bacardi building, designed by Enrique Gutierrez, was erected at 2100 Biscayne Boulevard in 1963|
There will never be a more perfect Miami monument than the original Bacardi headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard, a modernism-can-be-fun masterpiece designed by Cuban architect Enrique Gutierrez in 1963. Gutierrez had worked with Mies van der Rohe on the Bacardi headquarters in Mexico City. When Bacardi’s planned 1959 van der Rohe offices in Cuba fell apart with the onset of Fidel Castro’s leadership, the Gutierrez complex in Miami was the building that brought the best part of Cuba— joyful, colorful and elegant—to this city.
Like many other things in Miami, the Bacardi building, created in a still-nondescript stretch of Biscayne Boulevard, is also entirely improbable. It’s a flash of beauty in banal surroundings— a circumstance that only adds to its allure. It’s set on a raised plaza, and the tower floats over a recessed lobby like an eerie obelisk. As a kid growing up here in the 1970s, the Bacardi headquarters—along with the Marine Stadium on Key Biscayne, the Fontainebleau hotel and Vizcaya—served as one of the architectural landmarks that symbolized the tropical exoticism and romance of sweet home Miami.
The design is both beautiful and smart. Two exterior walls are adorned with fantastic blue and white renderings of a tropical paradise, handpainted by Brazilian artist Francisco Brennand. To the rear of the plaza is a smaller 1974 annex, designed by Ignacio Carrera-Justiz, with mosaic walls based on the work of German artist Johannes Dietz. Together, the two structures serve as the totemic emblem of Miami’s possibilities for intelligent life—our very own design Mecca.
The building’s architectural features call to mind the Mexico City headquarters, and may be Gutierrez’s best work. Relatively small, it was once used by high-level executives and was for years a grand Mad Men-south rumba, equipped with tasting bars for Bacardi products, sleek midcentury furniture, a dining room and a firstrate art collection with gems such as Antonio Gattorno’s 1938 mural Waiting for the Coffee. It reflects an era when liquor companies used the power of modernism to escape the darker associations of Prohibition. This was an impulse that then-Bacardi president Jose “Pepin” Bosch understood perfectly; Mies van der Rohe had also designed the 1958 Seagram Building in New York with Philip Johnson, still one of the most exquisite corporate offices in Manhattan.
In 2009, Bacardi—which had entered the modern era of sponsoring Black Eyed Peas concerts and such—moved on, consolidating more than seven local offices into one 15-story Mediterranean- style building in Coral Gables, and leaving the Biscayne Boulevard location vacant. In Miami, fabulous historic structures are abandoned and torn down every day, but the possibility of a threat to the Bacardi building mobilized the forces of preservation. The City of Miami Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, working with then-Mayor Manny Diaz, declared the building historic, ensuring that it would not be altered or torn down. The Bacardi building, still owned by Bacardi, would continue to bring out the best in Miami.
The plaza directly behind the main building houses a smaller, no less spectacular annex designed by Ignacio Carrera-Justiz in 1974.
Bacardi has still not announced definitive plans for the Biscayne Boulevard offices. On May 26, after protracted negotiations with the city, the company was granted a modification: The raised plaza the building sits on shall remain untouched, but a narrow strip along the north end of the complex at 2100 Biscayne Boulevard is no longer protected. Bacardi did volunteer to create a view corridor, a setback allowing southbound drivers to see the artwork on one of the buildings as they approach the complex.
To City of Miami Historic and Environmental Preservation Board officer Alexander Adams, the Bacardi building is Miami: “Bacardi was one of the first major companies to be based here, and years ago, before I-95, the building served as the gateway to downtown. It’s an incredible example of tropical modernism.” In an ideal world, the company would honor a grand legacy of architectural and cultural patronage and turn the entire building into a muchneeded museum of Cuban art. And as Bacardi spokesperson Aura Reinhardt notes, “That building is so iconic. It’s used constantly as a location for parties, as well as movie and television productions.”
It makes absolute sense that one of Miami’s most notable buildings would be created by a liquor manufacturer and gradually become a glorified film set and party venue, a made-for-Miami equation of pure fun. In 2007, The Wolfsonian-FIU held a fundraiser at the complex honoring design legend Florence “Shu” Knoll Bassett, the creative force behind Knoll furniture. I snuck away from the gala and slipped upstairs with a date. Instantly, we both felt transformed… sexier, smarter and more sophisticated if just for a moment. The mysterious alchemy of great architecture has powers beyond reckoning.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL KEARNEY