If you look at postcards of South Beach Miami, you may be forgiven for thinking that you were in some sort of Deco Disneyland, all dazzling neon and day-glo palm trees. But once you are away from Ocean Drive, the main drag, you will find streets behind, like Collins and Washington Avenues, that are part of a real town where local people live, eat and work.
We are all familiar with how South Beach (or SoBe) has become a sub-tropical playground for middle America and Spring Break students all looking for a good time, but if you, like me, make regular visits to the place, you will see some serious conservation going on. America has woken up to its rich architectural heritage in recent years. Many of the decaying 30s buildings including The Tides and The Victor have been carefully restored, although sometimes too much judging the over-elegant boutique hotels, many of which go a little too far down the minimalist route by toning down the ice cream colours, thus taking away the quirky nature of the period detailing in the process.
Tropics hotel, SoBe Art Deco
If Tropical Deco is your main interest, then Henry Hohauser and Albert Anis are the main architects for this and you have a couple of days on foot, ahead of you, best done in the early morning and late afternoon, to avoid the heat of the day. Essentially all of the sights worth seeing are between 5th and 20th Streets going north, and 4 or 5 blocks, in from the beach.
For a good start, head for the Essex House hotel (Henry Hohauser 1938) on Collins and 10th Street and fan out from there, most of the foyers are open and airy and just off the street, so you can easily breeze in and have a drink. The Wolfsonian Institute (Robertson and Patterson 1927) a former storage facility that now houses a collection of 20th century decorative arts, is well worth a visit.
Mimo Appartment Block North Beach
The pedestrianised Lincoln Road that runs between 16th and 17th Streets is full of ritzy alfresco restaurants and up market shops. The master plan for this, with zigzag sun canopies and floodlit pools was dreamed up by the architect Morris Lapidus in the early 60s who was quoted as saying ‘A car never bought anything’.
If this part of Miami Beach becomes too busy and commercialised, and you want to explore more architectural treats, move up the coast beyond 20th Street and way up to the 40s and 50s, you enter into the post war period, when America was really starting to show off its wealth, power and style as encapsulated by architects such as Lapidus, Roy France and Melvin Grossman.
For enthusiasts of Midcentury Modern, MiMo or Miami Modern as it is called, there is a treasure trove of gems from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Take it in walk size chunks with a cocktail or coffee break in between to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of hotels, restaurants, banks and condos built in this flamboyant space age funky style. A riot of stucco, concrete fins, pylon forms, baroque curves, Polynesian motifs, Egyptian caryatids and perforated screens.
Sputnik motif, lobby on 17th st SoBe
The Deco of SoBe seems almost conservative after visiting the Fontainebleau, Eden Roc, Casablanca and Deauville hotels which lean towards the exuberant styles of Latin America for influence and, some say, were the precursors of the Post Modernism movement. Morris Lapidus, the most celebrated architect of this style, was not taken seriously by his peers of the time, publishing such books as ‘The Architecture of Joy’ and ‘Too Much is Never Enough’ Naturally these destinations caught on with the rich, famous and infamous, and became film locations, casinos and cabaret supper clubs.
Fountainebleau hotel by Morris Lapidus
Other notable areas with good examples of this futuristic style are more low key neighbourhoods like Normandy Isles and Biscayne Boulevard where there are good corporate examples including the Bacardi building (Enrique Gutierrez 19630 and the IBM building (Herbert H Johnson 1965). Since that period, there has been a dumbing down of the International Style and more recently a spate of oversized and over-designed apartment blocks to cater for the influx of new residents.
For the more adventurous traveller, you could hire a car and head north on Highway 1 to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. If you want a total experience, a couple of hours on, towards Tampa, you’ll find a whole university campus designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 50s at Lakeland which is little known, Aztec inspired and beautifully intact.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s college campus in Lakeland Fl.
Don’t expect too much architecturally from the rest of Florida, but even in the most unlikely places you’ll find a restaurant, motel, bank, petrol station or even an insurance company that looks like it has been beamed down from another planet. There is more than enough to see in and around Miami, and with the combination of sea and sunshine, midcentury modernism never looked better.
Head for Miami with the C20 Society Richard Walker www.richardwalkerworks.com, who wrote and took photographs for the above piece, is leading an architectural tour of the city for supporters of the British building preservation Society this March 2014 and there are still a final few places left. Join the Society for £39 and you can come along, get details of future tours and support the Society’s work. As recommended by Modern Shows.
Images c Richard Walker
To apply for the right to produce this or use any part of this c Richard Walker for Modern Shows feature please contact Lucy@modernshows.com. Modern Shows produces Midcentury Modern, Midcentury East, The Modern Marketplace and Inside Modernism
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