Miami’s Architectural Revolution

Culture

While urban legends say that buildings cannot look beautiful, Miami proves otherwise.

It’s common for growth critics and urbanists to say that all development is ugly or soulless. However, architectural trends in Miami are contrary to this narrative. Miami has been one of America’s fastest-growing metros, nearly doubling its population since 1980. This growth has led to many innovative buildings being built, including high-rises in Miami’s central district. This contrasts with America’s heritage cities like New York City and Chicago which once built great skyscrapers, but are now prohibited from building new ones.

Miami has been catching up to these cities architectually through a combination of rapid growth, permissive zoneing and a uniquely Latin culture. This creates a more creative environment than other metros that limit creativity and require community input and design review.

From the mid-20th century on, Miami has been a hub of good architecture.

Miami has been a hub of good architecture since the mid-th century. The Waterside Hotel, and The Drake Villas are two examples.

But, a lesser-known Miami subgenre of architecture is “tropical modern”. Tropical modern, according to covetedition.com, is a trend that emerged in the 1950s focusing on optimizing cooling and sourcing materials in tropical destinations. Jorge Perez from Miami, a megadeveloper, said that the style is similar to Mies van Rohe’s generic modernism, except it is more minimalistic and has unusual balconies. You can see a lot of tropical modernism in Asia and Latin America. Miami, the U.S. capital, has also influenced local design.

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The Brickell skyline. (Image Credit: Canva. )

One of the city’s main hubs of tropical modern architecture is Brickell, a newer financial district on the outskirts of its traditional downtown. Formerly a low-density residential neighborhood, its profile began to change into a commercial district in the 1990s when a developer built a 51-story residential building. Since then, skyscrapers have multiplied in number – there are now dozens in a 1-square-mile area. This is a change that would be impossible in America’s heritage cities.

One of them is Perez’ Icon brickell. It’s a residential complex with three towers that also includes a hotel. The multistory buildings are framed by an entryway inspired by Easter Island, and house 1,800 units.

The Icon Brickell. (Image Credit: Canva. )

Located on Biscayne Boulevard, the One Thousand Museum (also residential and named after a local park) can be found outside of Brickell. Completed just two years ago, the building is noted for its distinctiveness, and has been described by a PBS documentary as one of the most complex ever built. Materials from Dubai were used to build the structure, which was known as glass fiber reinforced concrete.

One Thousand Museum. (Image Credit: Godsfriendchuck, Wikimedia Commons (License). )

Other skyscrapers are also available in Miami and its surrounding suburbs. The absence of regulations regarding land use that are common in mature cities led to this high-rise boom. Much of Miami’s greater downtown has very generous height limits, zoned for up to 80 stories. In Brickell as of 2017, the maximum allowable height was 1,049 feet – as South Florida Business Journal writes, “in the U.S., only New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco would have taller towers.”

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Allowable built area is also generous, with allowable footprints including buildings exceeding 29,000 feet. Federal Aviation Administration height restrictions resulting from Miami International Airport seem to be the main obstacle to tall construction. However, Miami’s open-minded attitude to height and bulk has allowed for many skyscrapers to be built and architects are free to use their imaginations.

Building a tower is a long-term challenge that requires years of fighting lawsuits and community boards. Buildings must comply with strict design guidelines and conform to zoning regulations, even after they are built. In fact, the much-maligned narrow skyscrapers that have cropped up in the last decade are a consequence of zoning rules that restrict lot coverage. It is difficult to be vertical in cities with a history of preservationism. Philadelphia, for instance, even restricts the height of its rowhouses.

Other American cities have skylines that are based on the past, and current architects tend to be less open to innovation than they are to comply with regulations. But in Miami it is the opposite, as lax regulations allow for unique construction…in the 21st century.

FTX Arena. (Image Credit: Canva. )

Other land use regulations, which can interfere with development in other areas of the city are not present downtown. For instance, in 2009 the city abolished minimum parking requirements there (on-site parking stalls can significantly eat into a project’s revenue and limit what can be done with it architecturally). Like clockwork, this caused parking-free towers to go up downtown.

Unfortunately, the city may bring the minimums back, given recent comments by some authorities. Other neighborhoods, such as Wynwood, and the nearby city of Miami Beach, subject buildings to design review. And there is growing advocacy to protect the region’s unique architecture with the creation of an anti-demolition ordinance for certain structures.

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Hopefully, this preservationist impulse, while strong to an extent, does not turn into so strong that Miami succumbs to the same antidevelopment stagnation faced by other metros. It was able to embrace growth while keeping the bureaucracy in check that gave it its distinctive look.

This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content staffer Ethan Finlan.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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