MIAMI BEACH: South Beach Commercial Buildings and Streets
Miami Beach is a great little city.
It’s one of the very few small cities to have survived in North America. This puts it in the distinguished company of Charleston, Annapolis, Quebec, and maybe Santa Fe and Savannah. Other North American cities of this size have been damaged to the point where they don’t function as pedestrian environments.
According to the 2000 census, 87,933 people live in the 7.03 square miles inside the Miami Beach city limits, for a city-limit density of 12,508—a bit more than Boston.
Its diverse and interesting population, its beach and nightlife, its shopping and dining opportunities and its cosmopolitan aura leave visitors thinking it’s unique and full of character, but most of all these days, it’s noted for its Deco architecture:
The City of Miami Beach is divided into North Beach, which is dense and suburban, and South Beach, which is even denser and thoroughly urban.
The South Beach zip code is 33139. Within its 2.60 square miles live 40,177 permanent residents (2003), yielding a density of 15,472 persons per square mile, about the same as San Francisco. This surprising figure is achieved despite swaths of hotels and a large business district with few permanent residents. And it’s achieved principally with two and three story buildings, both commercial and residential, that are mostly free-standing. It resembles Cambridge, MA in this regard.
South Beach looked like this in 1989:
Where are the back yards?
It was built mostly in the Great Depression. Just getting started in 1930, it looked like this:
Even today, few highrises interrupt the consistent three-story scale of South Beach, except at the very southern edge, from which this photo was taken:
Photo from SSP
South Beach contains the nation’s largest historic district; at one square mile, it surpasses Boston’s South End in size:
South Beach adheres to a grid, like most of Manhattan, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago or Charleston. The east-west streets are numbered for the visitor’s easy orientation, while the less-numerous north-south avenues bear names. Each of the first three avenues in from the beach can fairly claim Main Street status, though for different reasons.
Running along the broad beach, the easternmost avenue is Ocean Drive (sometimes known as Deco Drive), the main drag for tourists and beachgoers, lined with hotels and restaurants. This is Miami Beach’s raison d’etre, the symbolic and economic core.
The scene here reaches a crescendo Saturday nights, when it becomes a parade of musclemen, belly buttons, anacondas and supercars:
Sunday morning on Ocean Drive.
Next comes Collins Avenue, lined with hotels and restaurants, which are joined by chic boutiques. It’s the main drag where locals and tourists rub shoulders, and it’s also a state highway, sometimes heavy with traffic:
Convertible by Bentley.
Can you spot the parking?
Washington Avenue is the residents’ main drag: an everyday shopping street bracketed in the north by a small porno district and in the south by clubs (ah, those clubs…). At the northern end it resembles a busy street in Queens, with groceries, bistros and a hardware store; the southern end, with its cafes, may remind you of Italy:
The main drag where the locals shop.
A glitzy bus stop and a dull office tower at Washington Avenue and Lincoln Mall. This building makes me grateful new structures in the South Beach historic district are built in Deco style, rather than International Style Modernism, which reduces all places to the same place: anyplace. “International,” after all, is the opposite of “local:”
“Local” is Deco:
South and west of the historic district, big new non-Deco bayside condos introduce another scale that looks good from a distance but meets the ground plane in anti-urban fashion:
Photo from SSP.
At the other end of town, standard North Beach highrises loom above the strand:
Big buildings materialized on the Beach itself in 1947 with the primo Hotel Delano, shown here on a deserted early Sunday morning beach, waiting for a thunderstorm. The Delano was recently reconceived by that guru of glitz, French hotel architect Philippe Starck. This may be the city’s most desirable digs.
South Beach is for people who like to look. Whether you like to look at people or buildings, you’ll be equally rewarded:
Here you may also enjoy looking at cars:
Refugee from Cuba? A ’60 “Dodge Imperial.”
Boys on a cruise in the Azure by Bentley. Just a bit more than 400k will get you one too.
My personal predilection is looking at cityscape, ensembles of buildings that delight the eye:
The Cardozo, named for the Roosevelt-era Supreme Court justice, and owned by Gloria Estefan. Emerson made a radio that was its spitting image.
Deco Revival, just five-or-so years old (left), added to the real thing (right):
Wait a minute…they’re both the real thing! What difference does it make when they were built?
Some more Deco Revival. The five-story height also gives it away:
Elevator tower hurts the symmetry.
And yet two more:
Late Deco morphs into International Style around the time Gropius comes to America in the Forties; this one also exceeds the usual three stories:
Around this time, things start to look a little cheap (Gropius would say “economical”), and ground floors start to get a bit chaotic as the car muscles in, relegating pedestrian access to a kind of pit:
Converted office building makes a somewhat downmarket hotel
Neo-deco Jewish deli, built to look like it was always there. The establishment may have been, but the building’s new:
Showtime. Note the ristorante.
Lincoln Theatre, a converted movie house and now home of the New World Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson-Thomas, conductor. He also conducts the San Francisco Symphony.
As in Manhattan, Miami Beach gives you that genuine big city rush of the unexpected when you venture out for a ramble. I happened on the Lincoln Theatre at noon, and the orchestra was rehearsing Dvorak’s eponymous New World Symphony with a Czech conductor. The orchestra’s musicians are all in their twenties; big-city orchestras like the Chicago Symphony get their fresh blood here. They’re too young to be thinking about work rules and contracts, so they are here to play their hearts out. What I heard that afternoon was quite simply the best orchestral playing I have ever heard: better than the New York Philharmonic, better than the Boston Symphony, and as good as the Vienna Philharmonic. Pretty good for free:
Modernism tiptoed in behind Deco in Miami Beach:
A Modernist relationship to the sidewalk, like a sixties apartment building in Manhattan.
Modern detailing; but symmetrical massing, like most Deco buildings.
A little of this, a little of that.
Fifties Revivalism verges on parody (clunky as that SUV):
Pretty obvious what that is.
The newest building, however, is the one that strives to look the oldest:
Florida Spanish Revival. Shades of Robert Stern?
It also actually touches its neighbor at ground level, something earlier buildings scrupulously avoid. They must have changed the zoning. Still, this makes pretty good townscape. More Fifties Revival next door, foreground:
Actually, Spanish, Mediterranean, whatever you want to call it, is this city’s second most prevalent style. It was most common in the Twenties, just before Deco:
Also Spanish and from the Twenties is downtown’s sole skyscraper (City Hall):
A Plateresque chapel:
And a hotel:
There’s a whole little Spanish-style district, centered on a street called Espanola Way:
Weekends, parking’s restricted and this turns into a street market. Early morning, vendors set up tents and tables where weekdays people park:
The scene here takes on the sunbaked hues of Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic:
Diminutive scale skates at the edge of the Disneyesque:
Italian-style colonization of sidewalk:
A few really high class Spanish style mansions survive from the Twenties, including one on Ocean Drive. The influence is Mizner, and the material is native coral:
Even older, and also of coral, some vernacular architecture (once a house) rendered a little grotesque by the recent handrail code:
Espanola Way is cozy and cute, but the big money’s made at Lincoln Mall:
This used to be a street, but they replaced the roadway with vegetation and café tables:
Reminds me of Italy:
Must remind the café proprietors too, since they’re mostly Italian:
You can trust an Italian to pick a café chair; he’s got that touch:
Many of the shopkeepers are Italian too; can you tell from the black clothes?
Is it a Power Center?
Is it New Urbanism?
Early morning Saturday and already packed. Wait till everyone sits down for lunch:
The street’s Deco, and it’s been closed to cars for a long time, as you can tell from the size of the trees:
There used to be car dealers:
Cadillac/LaSalle dealership makes a nifty café if you add a skylight:
Cross streets are not interrupted by the mall, so you regularly encounter cars slinking by at 3 mph:
And the theater still operates:
And so does a hotel:
Not like the mall back home. Is it a mall at all?
Well…one thing it shares with all malls—it has a service area:
* * *
A PRETTY NICE STRETCH OF MODERNISM
Collins Avenue, the beachfront main drag, ends in a Chinese wall of high rises:
These are clustered a little incongruously around a flight of steps leading to a plaza. Here the beach ceases to be public and becomes the private domain of those big North Beach blockbusters. Thus, those glitzy new high rises mark the symbolic beginning of the North Beach sphere of influence. In addition, they make a pretty good case for the decorative potential of Modernist architecture:
These buildings borrow elements from Deco’s vocabulary --portholes and eyebrows—and combine them with Modernist massing and machine order. Here South Beach blends with North, both geographically and architecturally:
Eye candy on Ocean Drive’s northernmost blocks: these buildings really look good, but what they give to the city and the street is chiefly detail to keep your eyes entertained; their urban gestures leave a little to be desired. Why, for example, the flight of steps removing the outdoor seating area from sidewalk level?
As in any real city, people walk in Miami Beach. This is partly because it’s desirable and partly because it’s unavoidable. It’s desirable because there are almost no parking lots (and so the streetwall’s continuous and things aren’t separated); and its unavoidable because there are almost no parking lots (and so you can’t park at your destination unless there’s a vacant meter alongside).
Though the streetwall seems continuous, there are actually small gaps between buildings:
This allows fenestration of sidewalls and deep buildings that extend all the way to their rear property lines. Most unusual:
Those spaces between buildings are often developed as linear courtyards, sometimes shared:
And sometimes divvied up from front to back:
As buildings are built all the way from front property lines to rear, you’ll find alleys to access the rears:
A brand new poured concrete neo-Deco looms over an old Spanish style mansion on Ocean Drive, as $350,000 worth of understated automotive opulence glides by in the form of a Maybach:
Climate and passersby encourage sidewalk colonization:
On Ocean Drive this is accomplished by serving across public circulation to curbside tables:
This allows interaction with both pedestrians and the sharks in their Lamborghinis. Saturday night the resulting congestion is truly exhilarating; you wouldn’t believe the interaction. You have to be a drip not to come away with a trophy.
Or—seated at your café table on your hotel’s pedestal—you can find yourself at eye level with the passersby:
Even on Collins Street:
* * *
A TWENTIETH CENTURY CITY, full of urban architecture, not too sober:
…even the newest stuff:
Not just urban, but urbane:
* * *
Further threads will feature people…
…residential areas and architecture…
… and garages (yes).
PLUS!: Deco vs. Modern: which is the real Twentieth Century style?