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Miami’s Architecture Boom?

Terence Riley

Rendering of Zaha Hadid's new One Thousand Museum condominium across from Museum Park.

Recently, I organized an architectural competition for the Terra Group, a Miami real estate developer. The invited participants included three winners of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award, and two winners of equally prestigious MacArthur Fellowships, often referred to as “genius grants”: Jean Nouvel from Paris, Rem Koolhaas’s OMA (Rotterdam and New York), Christian de Portzamparc (Paris), and Diller Scofidio + Renfro (New York).

Terra Group’s new and notable interest in Architecture with a capital “A” is not unique amongst its Miami peers. Four other Pritzker Prize winners are currently working on other local residential high-rise buildings. Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss partnership that designed the new Pérez Art Museum Miami and the 1111 Lincoln Road parking garage, have also designed a 57-story beachfront condominium in Sunny Isles for Fortune International Realty. Last summer, developers Gregg Covin and Louis Birdman released images of London-based Zaha Hadid’s designs for a 700-foot tall tower, to be built on Biscayne Boulevard across from Museum Park. Foster + Partners, also based in London, is working on the 18-story beachfront Faena House, named for the Argentine real estate company developing the site. Fort Capital hired Richard Meier of New York to design three new residential and hotel condominium buildings for the nine-acre Surf Club site, which straddles both sides of Collins Avenue in Surfside. Of course, a Pritzker Prize hasn’t become mandatory for international architects to find commissions in Miami and Miami Beach. Enrique Norten, whose firm TEN Arquitectos is based in New York and Mexico City, has designed two residential South Beach condominiums—321 Ocean for Australia-based developer AGM Aria and One Ocean for the Related Group—and Bjarke Ingels, whose firm BIG is based in Denmark, has designed another condominium in Coconut Grove for the Terra Group in addition to recently competing with OMA for the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Long time observers of local real estate development might surely ask, “What has gotten into the masters of the universe that control the Miami skyline?” During the last boom, most projects relied on a highly refined economic model. The “vision” was frequently provided by the developer working with zoning lawyers to maximize the allowable square footage and height. Most of the architects that were hired for these projects were well aware of the rules (if they weren’t, they wouldn’t get hired), which included a host of restrictions on what they could and could not do: how much design innovation they could pursue (not much), how much time they had to produce their work (ditto) and how much they could expect to be paid (ditto, ditto).  Most often, there was more design effort placed on the sales showroom and the marketing campaign than in the building itself.

This economic formula made hundreds of millions of dollars for the developers, so why change? There are a couple of reasons that can be debated, though there is little in the way of hard evidence. It is often said that as Miami becomes more of a global cosmopolitan destination, potential buyers are more sophisticated, whereas previously the only thing the buyer seemed to care about was the address, the lobby and their apartment. Real estate pundits are saying that this new global clientele cares about the architecture of the building as much as what is inside. In the same speculative way, you could argue that the local clientele is also getting more conscious of the allure of architecture with the successful completion of several important projects in the area. Herzog & De Meuron’s projects, along with Nicholas Grimshaw’s Miami Science Museum and Frank Gehry’s New World Symphony have all taken place in the public eye and Miamians—rightfully—are feeling city-proud after a series of not-too-wonderful undertakings in the previous decade.

Another explanation of the somewhat sudden romance between developers and architects has to do with the economic model that the developers had perfected and the architects were bound to. Many developers began to realize that this formula was inevitably leading to buildings that more and more looked alike. The only real difference was their naming, which often involved well-paid PR firms that specialize in the marketing of real estate. Condos with “open water views” might continue to sell themselves, but those building sites were rapidly disappearing, leaving the real estate market to try to absorb dozens of residential towers with, at best, “part vu” and not much in the design department. There is only so much you can do with glossy marketing campaigns when your building is an anonymous container.

So, is it true love? Hard to tell. Undoubtedly, marketing still plays a big role. Developers have been given notable prominence to Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and Richard Meier’s names, to name a few, in their glossy magazine ads, marketing brochures and videos. Nonetheless, the developer that commissions a so-called starchitect opens the door to real design possibilities, as there is really only one road to name recognition for an architect: producing seriously innovative work over many, many years. A celebrated architect is not the same as a celebrity—someone who is famous for being famous à la Kim Kardashian. Hiring top architectural talent is also a more direct route to distinguished design than another recent marketing phenomenon. The associative branding of projects such as the Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles or the Bulgari Hotel chain conjures up images of luxury or elegance but, for me, not necessarily good architecture.

Architectural renderings and models can only suggest what a building might be like. The long process that takes place from the time a design is presented and the time when an actual building is completed involves a fairly constant struggle to maintain the design’s integrity in light of budgets, deadlines, and construction schedules. Value engineering, a term that refers to a cost-cutting exercise that can happen with or without the architect’s participation, can mean the difference between a great building and one that is a pale shadow of the design originally presented. The architects’ renderings of this current crop of residential projects have created high expectations.  Let’s hope the developers and the architects both rise to the occasion and turn those fetching renderings into beautiful buildings, setting a new standard for Miami residential architecture. It couldn’t happen to a better city.

This is the first of four columns in which Terence Riley considers different aspects of Miami’s architecture.