Miami isn´t just about beaches and shopping malls and traffic jams – duh! But that´s pretty much what I used to associate with it. How wrong I was! It is all that too, but there is so much more. The thing is, I have family there, and so I have been to Miami many times, but somehow I never got around to doing so much exploring. Our visits tended to be short and the programme mostly consisted of family get-togethers for food (not complaining!), a bit of beach with the kids (beaches are pretty and all, but really, I´m a forest and mountain lover), and visits to a nearby mall. OK, not quite true, we did also visit the Everglades and Big Cypress, and the Botanical Garden and … At any rate, much of Miami´s charm had somehow passed me by.
This time it was all different. Armed with a guidebook, I played tourist for two weeks and had the best possible time, taking full advantage of many of the cultural offerings, and ignoring the traffic. So, after 20 years, I finally fell in love with this city.
In January, a time when it is grey and cold and mostly dreary at home in Vienna, the sunlight and balmy Florida weather and Miami´s vibrant colours were just what I needed to relieve the winter blues. On my Instagram page I have been showing quite a bit of it already, but there is so much more that I want to show.
Time to talk about “Tropical Art Deco” on South Beach. Miami Beach properties began being sought after for development in the 1920s. Where before there had been agricultural lands such as coconut plantations and modest family homes, some millionaires began building homes. It was in the 1930s that the boom of Art Deco, and a particular strain of it, the Streamline Moderne, started sprouting up in South Beach.
Art Deco (short for Arts Décoratifs), a style of visual arts, architecture and design, first appeared in France just before World War I. It was actually a combination of many different styles, united by a desire to be modern and influenced by the bold geometric forms of Cubism and the Vienna Secession, but also by “exotic” Asian, Egyptian, and Persian styles. Initially luxurious, it became more subdued during the depression years of the 1930s, and new materials were introduced, including steel, chrome, and plastics. Smooth, shiny surfaces and curvy forms were typical.
A lot of it was, thankfully, preserved and restored in the South Beach area. So this district is not just a place where you can roast on the beach (you sure can), but also one where you can explore an architectural epoch in concentrated form.
Other than Napier in New Zealand, South Beach now has the largest remaining collection of Streamline Moderne Art Deco architecture. “Streamline” and “Nautical Moderne” architecture consist of curves, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements. In Miami this is now also called “Tropical Deco”. This type of design extended beyond architecture to cars and functional items, such as toasters and radios.
The “frozen fountain” motif, first introduced at the 1925 Paris exposition, became one of the typical Art Deco elements. In The Wolfsonian’s lobby, you can see such a frozen fountain, rescued from the facade of the Norris Theater, which had to yield to a McDonald´s (!) in 1983. Another example is the bas-relief panel on each side of the entrance of the Congress Hotel.
After the Depression and World War II, Art Deco largely vanished as an architectural style. The austere modernist forms of architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, who rejected ornament and embraced minimalism, began taking over. Only a handful of Art Deco hotels were built in Miami Beach after World War II, but it continued to be used in industrial design – including in car styling and those beautiful old 1950s jukeboxes.
Fortunately, in the second half of the 1970s, Barbara Baer Capitman and her son founded a preservation society, The Miami Design Preservation League, to save Miami Beach’s architectural history and prevent the decay and destruction of these Art Deco gems. The society managed to get the area listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making it the USA´s first urban 20th century Historic District.
So when visiting Miami, this area is definitely a must see. Even if you just want to party.
- Miami Beach Deco Walk booklet by the Wolfsonian Museum
- Biltmore Hotel history website
- MDPL website