A palm tree accentuates a large, square void in the middle of a tall building.
The Atlantis, Miami © Norman McGrath

No one has expressed Miami’s glamour, boldness, and precarious beauty quite like Arquitectonica.

Certain cities arise in the most unlikely of places, out of the most unnatural of circumstances. From St. Petersburg emerging in the blink of an eye out of misty swampland, to Dubai shooting up at internet velocity from the dunes of the United Arab Emirates, to Las Vegas appearing like a colorful mid-century mirage in the Nevada desert, these places are simultaneously triumphs of human ingenuity and precarious symbols of hubris in the face of time and nature.

It is through architecture that, singular and unique to themselves, they grow into more than willful phantasms and become real, durable entities in the international psyche.

Having grown at such a rate that it’s been called the “Magic City,” and sitting barely above sea level—prone to hurricanes and pressed between marshland and the ocean—Miami is one of those precarious urban agglomerations that have become a repository for our collective imagination. It is a city that should, in practical terms, not exist, but has seen continuous real-estate booms (and busts), which have left a skyline rammed with skyscrapers and a population of more than 5 million. Miami is the multi-ethnic mixing ground where the Caribbean and its cultures fuse with the speculative might of the mainland U.S.

For an architecture to become synonymous with a place while projecting it to new audiences, it must embody a broader zeitgeist—connecting with international currents of thought, yet going spectacularly and boldly beyond them. Miami has done this in two bravura instances.

First, it had the un-categorizable and brilliant architect Morris Lapidus. He set the tone for a city that was both resolutely Modern (the International Style being the zeitgeist of the day) and fundamentally surreal. Lapidus’s Fontainebleau Hotel (1954) was the epitome of this approach to design. A haunt of the Hollywood elite and a stage set of aspirational glamour, the hotel has sweepingly expressive exteriors redolent of both Art Deco and nautical imagery. They were contrasted on the interior with a hallucinatory world of trompe l’oeils, baroque ceilings, marble floors, and Mannerist-style staircases with ornamental ironwork. The austerity of high Modernism became the flamboyant high-mode magic of the seaside.

The Fontainebleau Hotel in the late 1960s (AP)
A stair inside the Fontainebleau, photographed in 1955 (Gottscho-Schleisner/Library of Congress)

Then came Arquitectonica, an architectural practice whose rise was as phantasmagoric and miraculous as the city out of which it emerged. Launched by Laurinda Spear and Bernardo Fort-Brescia in 1977, Arquitectonica built its first project in 1978, and within five years had a series of major Miami projects under its belt that helped define the popular notion of contemporary architecture for a whole generation around the world. That legacy is captured in a new, richly illustrated 400-page book of the firm’s work on its 40th anniversary, written by critic Alastair Gordon.

The early buildings became media sensations, lauded in the U.S. and international press, used as shooting locations for fashion labels and photographers and TV shows. Fort-Brescia and Spear (who are married) firmly rejected the label “Postmodern,” but these buildings came to represent an ebullient, hopeful, confident, and creative version of a Postmodernism that was coming to seem suspiciously reactionary—regressive, classicizing, and gloomy in many of its more northerly manifestations. Like the work of Lapidus, this was the rigid zeitgeist on a magic carpet ride.

Postmodernism, like so many -isms that come to define a whole period of design, was a chimerical, multifaceted thing. But broadly speaking, one can say that the era saw a rejection of the functionalist rhetoric of architecture—the end of “form follows function.” Architects re-embraced and often dourly deployed historical language and form, and endorsed complexity as opposed to minimalist simplicity. This time was also characterized by designers’ timid and angst-ridden relationship with larger-scale projects, shot through with fear of making the same mistakes as the previous generation, whose concrete and glass megastructures and urban redevelopments were already loathed.

In Miami, Arquitectonica took up these newfound freedoms with gusto, and did it differently than almost anyone else, deploying architectural elements in evocative, surreal, and highly charismatic ways that might have had little to do with the threadbare functionalist arguments of late Modernism, but functioned brilliantly upon the imagination of the press, Miamians, and clients alike. The firm’s Pink House (1976-8) combined the dreamlike abstractions of Giorgio Di Chirico and the hot and sensual colors of Mexico’s Luis Barragán. It had surreal moments, like the central feature of the facade being a brilliant blue porthole revealing the dalliances of swimmers in the pool behind—a direct reference back to Lapidus, who did the same for his underwater bar at Miami’s Eden Roc Hotel (1955-6).

The Pink House featured in the “No Exit” episode of NBC’s Miami Vice in 1984.
The porthole to the swimming pool is seen behind Bruce Willis.  

Bruce Weber photographed male models around the pool of the Pink House for GQ. The house appeared in Life, Vogue, Time, The New York Times, House Beautiful, and elsewhere. Hot-pink walls, voyeuristic portholes, architectural palm trees, and glass-brick partitions in the baking sun were in. Old European men and their austere dictums were very definitely out.

The Atlantis was the first of the practice’s large projects. It was finished in the same year as the Portland Building by Michael Graves, another icon of the period, and even the briefest of comparisons between the two reveals just how radical and refreshing was Spear and Fort-Brescia’s divergence from the mainstream currents of the time.

Like almost all northern Postmodernism, Graves’ building is heavy—in almost every sense—with historical allusion. It is symmetrical and massive, and “plays” with quotations, such as by including the bases, middles, and tops of classical columns, as well as swags and keystones, but blown up in scale and flattened. It is far less literal or grim than much of the corporate historicism that was about to spread across U.S. cities, but it was still beholden to a kind of classicizing decorum that somehow always left the faint whiff of self-importance and elitism.

The Atlantis, on the other hand, was a mirror-faced, primary-color-adorned ship confidently veering toward a sunny future. There were references here, too—galore—but to other pasts, pasts that looked to the future, like Constructivism, Surrealism, Rationalism, and high Modernism. It was composed with the wit of a Magritte, or with the magical-realist sensibility of the Caribbean rim: a giant lipstick-red pyramid on a shimmering slab like an inexplicable, ritualistic object on a vast table; a three-story yellow wall with a mysterious closed door, and a red staircase that leads across a banana-colored surface toward it. What looks like a fragment of the corner of a standard Modernist housing block, except bright yellow, crashes out of the side of the glazed façade. The other side of the building is a sea-blue grid.

The Atlantis, completed in 1982 (© Norman McGrath)

And then there is the void, that architectural gesture of almost unparalleled potency. By cutting a six-story hole in the building, nine floors up, and placing a raised jacuzzi, a palm tree, a balcony, and a spiral staircase (all in vivid contrasting colors) into it, Fort-Brescia and Spear encapsulated the sense of glamour, danger, exoticism, and precarious beauty that Miami as a whole represented to itself and to the world.

The square void of the Atlantis (Robin Hill)

Spear, while still a student at Columbia, had worked with Rem Koolhaas on the concept of the Pink House. Koolhaas was at the same time theorizing the surreal, irrational nature of modern architecture and urbanism, and the wild and evocative possibilities that present themselves when we build high, that resulted in his book Delirious New York. Nowhere was this notion of thrilling unexpected contrasts summarized as perfectly as in the Atlantis and its void, which went on to be part of the title sequence, and a filming location, for that other mythologizing vehicle for the city, the TV show Miami Vice.

Much like Koolhaas, Arquitectonica never had any issues or angst with scale. The Atlantis was a fully-formed and full-blooded piece of heroic design for a mediated age of globalization, and heralded a career of gigantic compositions that would have given Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe a run for their money. Designs such as those for the Horizon Hill Center in San Antonio (1982, unbuilt) heralded the strident confidence of a post-Cold War globalism that we only saw realized 20 years later, while other unbuilt Arquitectonica works like Miami Riverbay (1981), the Helmsley Center (1982), and the Orlando Convention Center utilized the breezily bizarre language of unexpected contrasts that the firm pioneered with the Atlantis, but at a scale closer to urban design. Each of these unbuilt designs was something of an excitable return to the Modernist dream of the city-within-a-city.

With its early built works plus the Babylon—a folded red ziggurat of apartments that was sadly just demolished—and two other huge, gridded, and colorful condominium buildings very close to the Atlantis (the Palace and the Imperial), Arquitectonica forged a tectonic image of Miami as a forward-looking site of impetuous but warranted self-assurance. Fort-Brescia’s home country of Peru no doubt provided an important source of alternative inspiration, and helped tie the practice to the idea of Miami as the fulcrum between Latin and North America.

The Mulder House in Lima (© Tim Hursley)

Peru also proved fertile ground for commissions. By the mid-1980s, in Lima, the couple were building another iconic small design, the Mulder House, a fusion of East Coast neo-Modernism with tropical colors and flourishes. They were also building the new headquarters of the country’s biggest bank, a huge rectangle carved into a rocky hill, pierced by numerous geometric forms and faced in a riot of materials, as well as the new U.S. embassy there.

These familial, stylistic, and business links to Latin America set the practice apart from the distinctly Eurocentric crowd that defined high architecture of the day. Looking back, they lend the work a distinct relevance today, when architecture that is truly cross-cultural, as well as confident and forthright, is frustratingly hard to come by in a world putting up barriers and reinforcing borders everywhere one looks.

The Westin New York in Times Square, which opened in 2002 (© Norman McGrath)

After many years of being deeply unfashionable in architectural circles, work from this period is being reevaluated. Graves’s Portland Building is being restored, Philip Johnson’s buttoned-up AT&T building is being landmarked, and in the U.K., Terry Farrell’s and James Stirling’s oeuvres are being listed as historic. But Arquitectonica—which is still very much an active practice, having designed in recent years the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a bank headquarters in Shanghai, and Miami’s Icon Bay, among many global projects—stood apart. It didn’t look longingly or ironically backwards. Nor did it condescendingly ape commercial design, presuming that to be what “the people” wanted, as some others did.

Arquitectonica hauled the past at terminal velocity through a kaleidoscopically unpredictable present, and into a future that was bright, transnational, and exciting. The architects offered a new dream rooted in Miami, but still relevant to us elsewhere now. Among a generation that is again immersed in uncertainty, many are once more looking to the past. It is best to question which past it is that you are looking to—as Arquitectonica did—and why. And to make sure that looking back is only a tool for moving ever more fearlessly forward, into the future.

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