Craig Robins has helped make Miami's Design District a magnet for cutting-edge architecture and luxury retail.
You've got to say this much for Craig Robins: He has an admirable sense of composure.
The South Florida real estate developer is sitting in his office in the Miami Design District—the 18-square-block demesne of furniture galleries and retail outlets that has been the main focus of his life and work since the late 1990s—amid a whirl of paperwork and the bustle of assistants. It is middle of the first week in December, the very height of the annual Art Basel Miami Beach fair that's taken over the city every winter since 2001; Design Miami, the architecture- and interiors-oriented sister fair co-founded by Robins himself, is now enjoying its 10th anniversary, and has brought still bigger crowds (the two fairs together attract about 100,000 visitors) and yet more fanfare.
For the next several days, both sides of Biscayne Bay will be awash with parties and money, and Craig Robins will be at the center of much of it, pressing the flesh, speaking on panels and hosting events.
And right now, he's doodling.
Perhaps all the excitement has come to seem old hat. Robins has, after all, been at the forefront of Miami's transformation for nearly two decades, and his district has long been a well-entrenched staple of the social scene during the fair. Surely few other real estate developers anywhere can pride themselves on having enough pop-culture cred to get a shout-out from Pharrell, as Robins did during a live performance at the 2013 fair.
Even the weather, it seems, conspires to boost his confidence, the skies having cleared only moments before an outdoor gala dinner Robins hosted in the district the night before.
But in key ways, this Basel is different from all other Basels. Beginning in 2008 with the arrival of Milanese clothier Marni, "We started to secure leases with the biggest fashion brands in the world," explains Robins; since then, he has set about building the area into a luxury powerhouse.
That process culminated during this year's fair, in the debut of a massive new retail complex at the heart of the district, unveiled amid considerable media attention and high expectations from locals and international visitors alike.
So it does come as a bit of a surprise to find Robins supinely sketching away in an open notebook, little abstractions creeping down the page as he chats absentmindedly about the past, present, and future of his work.
"We started out as probably the largest owner of historical properties in Miami Beach," says Robins, who launched his company, Dacra, in 1987. [Full disclosure: I interviewed Robins while in Miami on another assignment, during which my accommodations were provided by a firm whose clients include Miami Design District Associates, a cooperative development venture in which Dacra is a stakeholder.] "Then it occurred to me that we should grow over the bridge, to sort of create the new Miami Beach."
In the early 20th century, the Design District—historically part of the neighborhood of Buena Vista—had been a thriving area for both furniture manufacture and sales, with building after building of gracious loft spaces and snappy, Deco-accented showrooms. Miami's steep decline after mid-century was hard on the district, and it didn't bounce back in the 1980s, the time when sun-loving bohemians remade neighboring South Beach into a creative hot spot.
"The notion people had was that the furniture business should be in malls," Robins says, and what few businesses remained in the district went largely unnoticed by the city's new artistic arrivals.
Given its proximity to the glittering hotels and apartment houses of Collins Avenue—just a 10-minute drive across the Julia Tuttle Causeway, barring traffic—turning the Design District into a western extension of the bustling Miami Beach scene seemed a natural maneuver. Despite the influx of wealthy tourists and immigrants from around Central and South America, the city as a whole was, and to a surprising degree remains, remarkably underserved by major retail corridors.
Shoppers, especially high-end ones, can basically choose between Lincoln Road and Bal Harbour. Neither had the space to accommodate large furniture showrooms, but from the very start, Robins recognized that his new commercial hub for design could be more than that.
"We saw it as a great opportunity to also become an owner and producer of cultural content," he explains. Dacra's objective has been nothing less than to create, almost ex novo, a new urban brand.
As Robins puts it, "Our methodology is to be a neighborhood builder and nurturer." Beginning with a 2011 master plan by local architecture firm (and leading New Urbanists) Duany Plater-Zyberk, the Design District team has mapped out a sequence of new and renovated buildings, pedestrian streets, and zones of activity to transform the area into a dynamic cultural nexus.
The centerpiece of this plan, the completion of which has made 2014 such a key year, is a public plaza, Palm Court, itself centered on a giant "Fly's Eye Dome" from famed engineer-designer Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), based on an original prototype from Robins's personal collection. The giant Bucky ball isn't merely a piece of sculpture, but acts as a canopy over the entryway to an underground parking structure beneath the plaza itself.
Still more dramatic, perhaps, is the new retail facility fronting the plaza, also opened just in time for this year's Basel. The first building in the U.S. by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, its diaphanous blue portico is meant, its designer has claimed, to suggest a "structural waterfall," a shimmering veil for the rows of top-tier fashion outlets just behind it.
The presence of those outlets marks the most important shift in the character of the neighborhood under Robins's leadership. In 2010, Robins sealed a deal with L Real Estate, the development branch of global luxury giant LVMH; it is now a 40-percent partner in the district's holdings, and is responsible for the influx of clothing and lifestyle vendors to the area, among them such familiar names as Dolce & Gabanna, Valentino, and Tom Ford. (Dacra holds another 40 percent, while Ashkenazy Acquisition and General Growth Properties purchased a joint 20-percent share in the district several months ago.)
"We have 15 buildings completed, 20 about to start construction, and altogether they're housing 120 brands," notes Robins. "Some of the buildings are being done by the brands themselves, some by us, and others are hybrids."
Besides Fujimoto, architectural up-and-comers whose buildings are a part of the new push include firms Aranda Lasch; still other structures (like a garage by a collaborative team of emerging designers, selected by former MoMA architecture curator Terence Riley) will help turn the district into an outdoor aviary for contemporary architecture on par with the streets around Manhattan's High Line.
All this adds up to an astonishingly ambitious vision for urban design—unique as much for its being the brainchild of a single individual as for the fact that, evidently, the individual in question does not seem possessed of a particular design vision. "I'm more like a producer of creativity," says Robins, still doodling away. "I don't consider myself a good artist or designer."
To hear him tell it, the growth of the Design District, the birth of Design Miami, and whatever else is to follow has been chiefly a matter of swinging from vine to vine, grabbing onto opportunities as they presented themselves.
"I just want to do whatever we're doing well," he says. The selection of architects and of his luxury-goods partners has been less a matter of reaching some particular goal for the district, or for Miami as a whole, than simply going one better with each step. This year was big—35,800 attendees at Design Miami, up 12 percent—but next year could be even bigger.
"It's a pretty exciting moment for Miami in general," adds Robins, who does tout his hometown as "the city of the future," a view that seems that seems bolstered by its increasing cultural cache (with new institutions like the recently opened Pérez Art Museum) and its rising importance as a key economic outpost of Latin America, which will soon include Cuba as a fully integrated member.
During Basel, the future doesn't appear to be without its problems. Traffic on the causeway can turn the trip to the beach into a 40-minute slog; there is no public transit alternative, and little in the way of hotels and residential options in the district for those looking to make it their base of Basel operations.
Among the revelations during this year's fair was an upcoming condominium from Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, among the first of such projects that could turn the Miami Design District into a fully integrated urban community. The neighborhood does still feel as though it were just taken out of a box, but if Robins and company can increase the scant residential component, they might be able to turn into a true urban community—albeit a very well-heeled one.
The next chapter for the city is already being written, suggests Craig Robins, but there's no reason to get too anxious as to what, precisely, the end goal is meant to be. "It's always an evolving process," he says. "Time is an important ingredient in making a neighborhood successful."