Has  the practice of architecture declined in recent years? Are we seeing more “bad” and “ugly” than “good” and “beautiful” buildings? And who is to judge?  The architectural press and mainstream media have recently shown renewed interest in the state of architectural practice and criticism.  Some of our best-known pundits picked up on Frank Gehry’s angry response to a Spanish journalist, wherein he declared that 98% of current architectural design is beneath contempt (my phrase, his was less politic).  In separate U.S. publications, respected architectural critic Aaron Betsky (former director of the CAM and newly appointed director of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture)  expressed misgivings about the health of the discipline, lamenting  bad designs that waste scarce resources. Betsky observes that while the designation of an “ugly” design is subjective, he believes that “ugly buildings are sucking the life out of our human-made environment” in the CBDs of Cincinnati and the rest of the world. (Architect, August 2014)

The New York Times and Forbes Magazine weighed in on where the fault resides. Some reader comments decried the evil effects of star-architects. Others revived the old argument between the defenders of traditional classicism and various forms of International Modernism (or any weird or exotic form). Arguments about what constitutes good or bad architecture often rely on the popularity of a project, i.e., how many people like or dislike a prominent visual artwork. Or how do people feel about one building style versus another? This suggests that we can make a judgement by a poll or popular vote.  Many of us believe that architects and city planners should heed public opinion about the built environment we all must live in.  In turn, critics and the media should encourage the public to be open-minded about new design solutions. Architecture, like all arts and sciences, grows through experimentation. But we can learn by studying those landmarks that have stood the test of time, just a we draw energy and inspiration from exciting new ideas.

All this is a long way of getting into my basic reason for this column, which is to document and explicate the enduring and widespread popularity of American Art Deco as evidenced by the success of the January 2015 convocation I witnessed in the South Beach neighborhood of the City of Miami Beach at its Art Deco Museum. I am not claiming that popularity or enduring appeal is proof of merit or beauty, but it must be considered an argument for the defense.  Some present-day admirers who consider themselves traditionalists may be surprised to know this 1920s-1930s architectural style was originally known as Modernism.  The term Art Deco came into general use in the late 1960s.

Full disclosure: I am an ardent admirer of Cincinnati’s high Art Deco masterworks, such as the Carew Tower and Union Terminal.  And I do not contend that the garden-variety buildings of Miami’s South Beach are in the same league.  But taken as a whole, they have a marvelous aesthetic appeal and, like all things Art Deco, currently have a significant following.

More than 344,000 people attended the January 16-18, 2015 Art Deco weekend in Miami Beach.  This annual celebration of architecture and design, which consisted of lectures, tours, fashion shows, music, and swing dance competitions, corresponded with the 100th anniversary celebration of the incorporation of the city of Miami Beach in 1914.

At the Art Deco Museum in South Beach, I spoke with Richard Towers, the Special Events and Tours Director at the Miami Design Preservation League, who told me that Art Deco fan clubs were drawn to the event from as far away as New York City, Napier, New Zealand, and other cities with significant Art Deco districts.

The Art Deco Museum, which opened in 2014, at Ocean Drive and 10th Street, is worth a visit. It provides an excellent introduction to the guided walking tours the Welcome Center offers, or a self-guided stroll.  The attractive permanent exhibition was expertly designed and installed by museum staff. The display is small, but varied and informative.  Highlights include original artifacts: Sanborn Maps of Miami Beach streets and properties, posters from the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale de Arts Decoratifs et Industriale Moderne, Art Deco furniture and costumes, and postcards and paintings of Miami Beach in the 1920s.

The storyline takes two directions. One is the history of the preservation campaign, which began in the 1970s and continues today with the effort to preserve single-family houses. The second theme explores the three dominant style types in Miami: Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival, and MiMo (short for Miami Modern).  The stories are told in panels, using text and images, with models, and minor artifacts.  The modest $5 per person admission fee is waived for those who purchase tour tickets.  The gift shop stocks excellent books and Deco-related products.

Richard Towers maintains that the South Beach Art Deco architecture has strong appeal because of its concentration and the district’s fascinating social history.  He notes that because South Beach was built within a compressed period between the hurricane and Great Depression, the individual building styles relate closely to one another.  The designs are symmetrical, have interesting decorative details, and the pleasant colors reference the sea, sky, and sand environment. In many respects, this streamlined modern style has a positive psychological effect upon its users.  Restoration architects later observed that much of the detailing choices appear to have been left to contractors and craftsmen. So the vintage buildings have a vernacular element.

Early 19th century landowners in Miami Beach initially tried specialized agriculture, but they soon realized the development potential of the ocean setting and salubrious climate, which attracted middle-class and affluent American vacationers, eager to escape the northern states in the winter months. Leaders persuaded Henry Flagler to extend railroad lines to Miami, and to build a hotel. The tourism industry blossomed in the prosperous 1920s.

In 1926, a disastrous hurricane cleared acres of land on the islands that made up Miami Beach.  When rebuilding started, local designers and contractors adopted the new streamlined Modernist style, which we now call Art Deco. It had the benefits of being relatively simple and inexpensive to build.  Locally sourced materials were used.  The structures were wood-framed boxes finished with stucco or concrete.  Designs were etched on walls and glass partitions.  Exteriors were often trimmed with neon light.

Several Art Deco architects practicing in Miami had studied with or were influenced by Jean Phillippe Cret, a French-trained Beaux-Arts Classicist, who was professor of Architecture at University of Pennsylvania.  Cret, who was the aesthetic consultant for several Cincinnati buildings, including Union Terminal, advocated a sleek, stripped down Classicism, which kept the symmetry and axial planning of traditional design but streamlined or stripped corners and decorative detail.  The buildings of the 1920s, like the automobiles, appliances, and flapper clothing of the era, were new, modern, and fun. The architecture fit its context, its function, and the holiday mood of its users.

The hurricane and Great Depression took their toll on the inexpensive hotel and apartment district. By mid-20th century, the South Beach section of Miami Beach was seedy.  The buildings, which were used for cheap rental housing, became dilapidated.  Many of the occupants were elderly and impoverished.  After World War II, the tourism industry in boomed and land values escalated. Developers in South Beach began to demolish major Art Deco landmarks to build modern hotels, condominiums, and apartments.

Barbara Capitman, a designer and writer, who had moved to South Beach from New York, fell in love with the endangered 1920s-1930s building stock.  Along with her son and several other dedicated preservationists, she founded the Miami Design Preservation League, which today operates the Welcome Center and Museum.  Capitman convened the first Art Deco Festival in 1978 to promote the district and its preservation. In 1979, the Miami Beach Architectural District was listed by the National Register of Historic Places.  It was the nation’s first 20th century architectural district. Still, a number of landmarks were demolished in the 1980s before the League turned public sentiment solidly toward preservation.  Now, respect for this unique heritage is part of the community fabric, and South Beach architecture is Florida’s second greatest attraction.

New construction in the historic district is expected to fit the context of the Art Deco environment, although too many residential towers along the beach greatly exceed the old four- and five-story standard. But designers often select pastel colors that reflect those of prototypes from the 1930s.

Happily, the many bright uncluttered buildings, short blocks, and shady streets survive,  contributing to a delightful walking neighborhood, which gives one the sense of a place that is friendly, content, and safe. And, I contend, that is one definition of “good” architecture.  Small wonder, 350,000 people gathered here last month to experience and enjoy the Art Deco historic district.

The next Art Deco Weekend is January 15 -17, 2016.  Watch for updates on the Preservation League website: www.mdpl.org.

–Sue Ann Painter

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