Miami Modern earned the status it deserves
Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press
A couple of hours’ drive and Miami feels a million miles away.
I was there exploring a few weeks back and easily identified an assortment of fine architectural styles particular to Florida’s east coast. Over the past century, this investment in good design has paid off, creating an architectural identity unique to that area.
During the land boom of the 1920s, the rich and famous who discovered the temperate winter climate of South Florida built landmark estates and resorts in the Mediterranean Revival Style — an eclectic combination of styles originally found in Tuscany, Venice and Spain.
On Miami Beach, the international Art Deco style evolved into “Streamline Moderne” Art Deco, i.e. long, low horizontal buildings reminiscent of ships: incorporating curved forms and minimal, often nautical details. The traditional decorative and geometric Art Deco was stripped of its excess perhaps as a reaction to the simpler and more austere economic times of the 1930s.
But on the east coast there is much more than just the well-publicized Art Deco of South Beach and the occasional Spanish Revival landmarks.
The designs of the past 20 years are sleek, chic, typically white and often designed by internationally known architects. The architecture of recent years has made Miami and its environs a world-class city worthy of note.
What struck me, however, is the lesser-known and until recently, neglected postwar Miami modernist architecture — better known by its acronym MiMo (MY-Moe).
Like the midcentury architecture of the west coast of Florida, MiMo was a regional response to the modern movement in progress globally since the 1920s.
Similar to the buildings on the west coast of Florida, modern buildings in Miami were deliberately designed to adapt to the climate; providing relief from the sweltering sun and shelter from torrential rains of south Florida, simultaneously incorporating modern technologies of the day.
However, on the east coast this midcentury style split into two styles. First, the more functional sub-tropical approach, not dissimilar to the architecture of the Sarasota School. The other became a more fashionable architecture, which mimicked the mind-set of the rich and postwar growing middle class.
MiMo resort architecture playfully integrated elements of fun: vibrant color, cantilevers, curves and circular openings. Instantly these buildings became affiliated with the exotic as well as the glamour and extravagance of a resort lifestyle. Soon Miami’s unique modern style was easily recognized, not only in resorts, but also in monuments, commercial and residential buildings.
Although scattered along the east cost, the largest concentrations of MiMo can found on Miami Beach at the north end of Collins Avenue and the length of pedestrian promenade of Lincoln Road, and in Miami, along Biscayne Boulevard and dotted throughout the Design District. MiMo can also be found in abundance in Fort Lauderdale.
The Fontainebleau (1954) and the Eden Roc (1956), adjacent hotels on Collins Avenue designed by whimsical architect Morris Lapidus, are luxurious resorts that epitomize MiMo. Lapidus did not agree with the modernist school theory — that “less is more”. Instead he sincerely believed “Too Much is Never Enough” (coincidentally, the title of his autobiography). His interiors and exteriors are frivolous, fun and flamboyant. He created buildings to make holiday-goers happy.
Today, these buildings are being recognized as valuable to the identity of their community and are being preserved. On our coast we have buildings of similar architectural interest and value, but little is being done to protect them. These carefully considered, strong designs shouldn’t be lost but treasured.
Joyce Owens AIA RIBA