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Amertec Ephemeral

Ariana Hernandez-Reguant

Rodolfo Peraza, Ariana Hernandez Reguant, and Ernesto Oroza at the Amertec Building Image courtesy: HICCUP
The Amertec building, a Hialeah landmark that cemented the city’s reputation for quirkiness, was demolished this past February, likely to make room “for an emergency vehicle parking lot.” At least this is what one of the developers who bought the property in 2012 told me on the phone. Artist Ernesto Oroza and I, an anthropologist, had been eyeing the building for some time as a possible space for our Hialeah Contemporary Culture Project (HICCUP). Fearing opposition to his demolition plans, the man quickly became adversarial and ended up banning us from his property. The Amertec’s fate was sealed, and we would not be able to stop it. In retrospect, the building’s unavoidable demise made sense.

Located on W 21st and W 1st Avenue, the Amertec was sandwiched between the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, the elevated Metrorail, and the heavy-traffic street below. Every twenty minutes or so, a Metro train cast its shadow through the second-floor porthole windows, and the entire building rattled, as if under a Coney Island rollercoaster. But it was not always this way. Back when it was constructed there was no Metrorail to obstruct the building’s view. A parking lot lay in front; the closest thing to a plaza from which to admire the pastel-colored bubble-shaped forms that formed the façade. The building and its adjacent warehouses were sold in 1981. In the late 1990s, the construction of the Metrorail line and a street widening project sent the building into a decadence, as the property passed through a series of owners and eventually a foreclosure that left it derelict.

Chayo Frank designed the Amertec building after graduating from the University of Oklahoma School of Architecture in 1969 at the behest of his father, who needed an office for his Hialeah store-fixture plant. Amertec was Frank’s magnum opus, a free-form concrete building whose “organicity” was supposed to provoke a sensory experience, in addition to providing a labor space. With it, he sought to pay tribute to two masters of a “free architecture” inspired by the natural world. One was Bruce Goff, known for his modern, organic houses, who once taught at Frank’s alma mater and whose legacy influenced cohorts of students there. The other was the Catalonian Antoni Gaudí, another outsider who broke the molds of conventional architecture with his whimsical buildings at the turn of the twentieth century.

One day, a couple of years ago, Ernesto Oroza and I noticed activity in the back of the building. A man was storing mattresses and explained that he had rented the rear warehouse for cheap. “They may rent you the office cheap too,” he ventured. He let us in through a back door and we wandered in, filming every inch of an interior space that was food for the imagination. On the ground floor, rounded rooms with curved walls unexpectedly received light through nearly-hidden skylights. They were used as storage spaces but we imagined artists at work there instead. A winding staircase led to a bright second-floor gallery, with grainy concrete walls and big rounded windows to the back. Once the area where administrators sat at desks, we fantasized it as our work space: for writing, designing and thinking. We lingered there for a while. Then we called the developers only to learn about Amertec’s doom.

Two local men, with at least a dozen corporations to their name, had bought the property as an investment, expanding on their ongoing plans to buy other surrounding parcels. In their scheme, Amertec had neither aesthetic nor utilitarian value. They viewed it as a nuisance: It sat exactly on the future entrance of the parking lot they intended to build. According to the Miami-Dade County Office of the Property Appraiser, they paid a grand total of $600,000, exactly the appraised value of the land and the land only. The Amertec itself, as separate from the land, was not factored into the sale price. That is to say, the building was worth nothing. If anything, its architectural quality could become a liability standing in the way of profit.

For Chayo Frank, buildings should neither be prescriptive nor structure people’s activities within them. Rather, they should spark people’s imagination and lead to new engagements. It was thus imperative that the Amertec building –an office building- not merely be a literal response to a material need. And that was its tragic paradox, for its location in an industrial periphery demanded exactly the opposite. In an area administratively designated as industrial, a building’s only possible value was use-value. Its source of wealth—its capital—was the land it sat on.

In a city’s industrial periphery, like in residential areas, land becomes capital as it is transformed into real estate. The generation of wealth obviously requires the exploitation of labor, but not only. It also requires the extraction of resources through land speculation. This process requires what Sandro Mezzadra, in a recent article published in Cultural Studies, has described as an “extractive urbanism.” Mezzadra is referring specifically to an engineered gentrification process for the sake of boosting real estate value. The opportunistic re-zoning of land by regulatory agencies is central to this process, so as to permit an ephemeral urbanism that results in the revalorization not of the built environment, but of its unbuilding—and therefore re-use—potential.

A similar process takes place, albeit perhaps slower, in peripheral, industrial and post-industrial areas. There, capital takes the form of land, as a productive labor space, and it is the latter’s potentiality that generates value. While in residential areas, this logic of value extraction might require an attention to aesthetics, as a marker of taste and therefore class and status, in industrial areas the approach to construction is purely utilitarian—an approach that often spills to the residential vicinity that supplies the labor force. Hialeah is a case in point.

With an ineffective historic preservation board, and a history of both frantic re-zoning and urban privatization, Hialeah is a city of ephemera. A sculptural building abstracted from both context and use could only last for as long as it was not worth the cost of demolition. Periodically, I would call the city of Hialeah Planning and Zoning Department to inquire if a demolition permit had yet been issued. To every negative answer, I gave a sigh of temporary relief. But Amertec was a demolition foretold. Perhaps that is why, upon hearing the news this last February, Amertec’s builder Chayo Frank remained unsurprised.

Ultimately, the demise of Amertec is less a death to memory, or to identity, or to community, as is the case with most buildings deemed to possess an intrinsic, aesthetic value. It is rather an attack on the imagination in favor of literality. It signals the inability of this “unmodern,” contemporary capitalism to allow for uncertainty, and to encourage the vision of open, infinite futures.

Ariana Hernandez-Reguant
has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and an undergraduate degree in Art History. She has been conducting ethnographic research in Hialeah on citizenship practices, immigration and race relations for several years. She is the founder of HICCUP (Hialeah Contemporary Culture Project), a Knight-funded initiative on social practice art with Ernesto Oroza.