The Buildings, the Beach and the Blood

What happened to Miami Beach in the 14 years since Art Basel stepped in.


I had to watch her bleed
It was the biggest news story to come out of Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) this year, and everyone wanted to know: Why did Siyuan Zhao stab Shin Seo Young with an X-Acto knife on the floor of the Miami Beach Convention Center? Occurring as it did in the very nerve center of the massive art fair, most onlookers assumed that the December 4th incident (the screaming, the police tape) was some form of performance art—a daring comment, perhaps, on the nature of violence in contemporary society, reminiscent of Chris Burden’s infamous “Shoot” (1971) in which the artist allowed a friend to fire a .22-calibre bullet into his left arm.

According to the stabbing victim, whose wounds were not life-threatening, she and her alleged attacker were not previously acquainted, though the accused had evidently been following her through the exhibition for some time prior to their confrontation. “I had to kill her and two more,” Zhao, a 24-year-old Chinese national and architecture graduate of the University of Oregon, told police after the attack. “I had to watch her bleed.”

A Brief Taxonomy of Miami Beach Hotels
W South Beach: New-ish Yet Delightfully Awful… Smoking in the rooms is strictly prohibited, violators to be punished with a $450 fine. The fee is the same regardless of what room you’re in, and since the larger rooms cost upwards of $900 per night many guests routinely smoke their way through their stays and pay the fee uncomplainingly on checkout. Remarked one Basel-goer, “If I can’t smoke, why’d I buy all this cocaine?”

The Delano: An Endangered Species… Magnificently over-the-top, untouched since an early 90’s renovation that installed billowy white curtains in the lobby. The token of its legitimacy? The pool table. What’s worrisome? Beginning this year, they no longer serve calamari to bar patrons. (Only sushi.)

The Standard: An Early Incursion of Good Taste… First opened in 2006, the local satellite of Andre Balazs’s growing hotel empire occupies the former digs of the Lido Spa, and it fetishizes the ticky-tacky remnants of its old Belle Isle home—“Googie”-style light fixtures, Eliot Noyes-esque wall clocks, etc. That said, the landscaping in the bayside gardens is gorgeous, as are many of the guests. (Full disclosure: The author writes this from a fourth-floor room at The Standard Hotel in Los Angeles.)

Delano Hotel, by Architect Robert Swartburg, 1947; photography by Emiliano Stefenetti/WikiCommons.

Delano Hotel, by Architect Robert Swartburg, 1947; photography by Emiliano Stefenetti/WikiCommons.

Soho Beach House: Neither Here Nor There… About the only thing not wholly indifferent about the place it its horrible vehicle turnaround, the source of most major traffic jams occurring during Basel after 3AM.

Edition: More Heedless Good Taste… Hotel magnate Ian Schrager’s opening gambit to muscle in on the Miami Beach action. Opened last year, the hotel has effectively stolen the lunch of the Ace Hotel chain, translating the latter’s low-key cool into a slightly swishier mode suitable to South Florida. Even with a roller rink downstairs, however, the place still smacks suspiciously of Manhattan.

Nautilus: The Attack of the New… Much too nice—nicer than the Edition even. Hospitality magnate Jason Pomeranc is behind it, he of the Sixty Hotels brand. Wanton tastefulness.

Faena: Only Time Will Tell… The Argentine mega-developer Alan Faena has created a mini-empire in Mid-Beach, with a complex of residences, hotels, and a cultural center by Rem Koolhaas’ firm OMA. On the whole, this seems to embody the deadening trend of improvement—both moral and aesthetic—that has seized the area. But the interior of the hotel is so gratuitously overdone as to suggest a new, deluxe-contemporary awfulness…

Is Art Basel Miami Beach over?
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 75,000 visitors descended on Miami Beach for Art Basel this year, a number roughly coequal with the estimated year-round population of the seaside municipality itself. As a matter of logistics, the whole event can fairly be described as a man-made disaster: Miami Beach has no public transit system to speak of, inadequate highways connecting it to mainland Miami, and if the weather turns bad—as it did this year, with a diabolical rainstorm settling over the region for most of the four-day-long festivities—the whole of Collins Avenue turns into a giant asphalt Slip ’N Slide.

There was an international art market before the fair. There will be one after.

Despite the many drawbacks of its locale, the fair has continued to attract patrons in greater and greater numbers; financially, it seems to go from strength to strength, remaining almost without dispute the most important fair of its kind anywhere in the world, while its sister fair, Design Miami, occupies a position of only slightly lesser prestige in the world of architecture and interiors. (To be fair: Milan’s Salone del Mobile leaves both in the dust, with annual attendance topping 375,000.) But whatever the take at the fairs’ ticket booths — although they long ago saturated the city’s infrastructure — there steeled over the sodden proceedings this past year a sense of… desuetude? Hard to believe, given the size of the crowds. Yet the feeling that, somehow, something had gone out of Basel—that its sway was no longer commensurate with its scale—put one in mind of the words of the ever-quotable Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” As important as ABMB has become to the global cultural calendar, it should be recalled that it is not a terribly old fair, dating back only to 2002. There was an international art market before the fair. There will be one after.

An observation
Foamcore is a pink or light blue Styrofoam-like product commonly used in design studios for the creation of small architectural models. Students and professionals can easily carve the dense but pliable material using both automated cutting tools as well as manual ones, such as X-Acto knives.

Southern portion of Miami Beach with downtown Miami in background.

Southern portion of Miami Beach with downtown Miami in background.

Keep Miami Beach Vulgar
There’s been an ongoing dispute between Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, as to which was weird first. But it turns out there’s a simple answer. As Terry Currier explained to Portland’s Willamette Week, “Austin was first.” Currier, an Oregon-based music entrepreneur, helped import the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” (meant to encourage citizens to patronize local businesses) to the hipster capital of the Pacific Northwest around 2003. What’s striking about the debate as well as the motto is that neither town is particularly weird in se. Austin is too laid back to be authentically nutty, while Portland is only unusual in its capacity to take on every urban trend to crop up over the last quarter-century and distill it to its agonizing quintessence. Both of them, in other words, are only weird as compared to their immediate surrounds—cattle ranches, logging camps—not to other cities; indeed weirdness, as a distinguishing trait of cities, doesn’t quite wash, eccentricity being more or less a constitutive quality of cities as such.



One could, for example, say that Miami Beach is weird, in so far as it is the only place known to the author where it is not only permissible but commonplace to see richly be-suited young men, hair stiff with hazardous quantities of “product,” squiring 65-year-old women in scarf-sized dresses to chain restaurants for lunch, and for both parties to look genuinely fabulous doing it. But that’s less weird than simply outré, and in a town where everything seems so grandiosely squalid, the wretched little Art Deco motels and the seedy houses on Indian Creek, it is these people that the Art Basel visitor comes to look for and to love. Curiously, Miami Beach does not have an official motto of its own, which is weird given the way such taglines have become the favored locum tenens for civic pride in the United States. Consider Algona, Iowa: The World’s Largest Cheeto. Or Austin, Minnesota, also known as Spamtown, USA. In Wisconsin, the town of Lodi is Home of Susie the Duck.

The Faena District
As a bellwether of Miami Beach’s relentless march towards urban sophistication, the unveiling this year of the hotel and residential component of Alan Faena’s multi-use Faena District is fairly telling. Development has always proceeded in fits and starts in the city, its history punctuated by booms and busts ever since enterprising figures like Carl Fisher and John Collins first started to colonize the sandy strip in the late 19th century; but the new rush of buildings, including towers by designers like Bjarke Ingels and Jean Nouvel, represents not just a boom in volume but in quality, a quantum leap towards bona fide refinement. Faena’s buildings exemplify the trend, and if he’s not its most articulate spokesman he’s certainly its most picturesque: strutting around the still-unfinished shell of OMA’s Faena Forum during the fair, the Buenos Aires-based tycoon—splendid in his white tunic, flaring pants and broad-brimmed hat, a look that can only be described as “gaucho chic”—sketched his vision for the future of Miami Beach as a high-toned, high-minded destination city for global culture vultures. “Culture,” Faena has said, “is the anchor,” a vehicle for bringing people to what admittedly has been a slightly barren stretch of Collins Avenue.

The new rush of buildings represents not just a boom in volume but in quality, a quantum leap towards bona fide refinement.

When completed, the Forum will be a Lincoln Center in miniature, a home for… exactly the kind of cultural fare no sane person used to go to Miami Beach to see. But as with his hotel’s extravagant interior décor, the saving grace of Faena’s ambition may turn out to be how brazenly commercial it truly is. Repackaging the capital-A Arts as a lifestyle commodity could render the enterprise sufficiently ridiculous to feel perfectly at home in Miami Beach. Or at least Miami Beach as it has been. One can only hope.

A Word About Tom Wolfe
In 2012, Tom Wolfe published his fourth and most recent novel Back to Blood, which took as its subject the City of Miami and its intricate social fabric. The book was greeted with well-deserved opprobrium by critics, since the novelist—having acquired, some thirty and more years ago, the semi-official designation of Foremost Chronicler of Contemporary America In All Its Rich Pageantry—once again felt that these credentials gave him license to write about whatever he wanted, without giving much thought as to whether he really should. Wolfe, a courtly older gentleman residing on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, wrote about the lives of Cuban-American policemen and Haitian academics in Miami with the same galling presumption he brought to the sex life of a female college freshman in his previous outing, 2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. If anything, Wolfe’s dedicated journalistic approach would seem even more inadequate as applied to Miami than to poor Charlotte: the city is so big, so restless, resisting any definitive analysis or summing-up… The present essay aspires to no such completism, and as proof the author freely admits that he knows nothing about Miami outside of the beach, the art fairs and the architecture, and has never even read Back to Blood.

Miami 3

Faena Museum, Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Philippe Ruault.

This Will Kill That
OMA’s Faena building seems an earnest enough endorsement of their client’s idea: a great sweeping bowl of concrete, incised with tesseratic windows and wrapped around by narrow passageways, the project is primarily the work of Koolhaas’ main man in New York, Shohei Shigematsu, who’s much more of an “architect’s architect” than his famously flippant patron. The Forum’s completion next year will not inaugurate the era of Landmark-Quality Contemporary Architecture in Miami Beach (that began some years ago, with the arrival of Herzog & de Meuron’s parking facility at 1111 Lincoln Road), but it will mark a significant step forward in the area’s transformation into a refuge for all things culturally legitimate—a process that is inextricable, the author would argue, from what would seem to be the incipient demise of ABMB.



When the fair first launched, Miami Beach was still so synonymous with oily tawdriness and sun-drenched dreck that the title itself, “Art Basel Miami Beach,” sounded like a surreal joke. (“Festival de Cannes/Gulag Archipelago!” “Riyadh Gay Pride Parade!”) But as its host city goes more and more cosmopolitan, so the fair seems less and less delightfully improbable. This is not simply the gripe of a longtime habitué against the forces of gentrification: again, the author disavows any such personal claim to Miami Beach. But it is this process that may ultimately undo the fair. “Ceci tuera cela,” as Hugo wrote in Notre Dame de Paris: the book, he argued, killed Gothic architecture, robbing it of its central role in Medieval society. In Miami, the invasion of better and better buildings, holding newer and far more luxurious hotels and restaurants and cultural programming, may ultimately kill Art Basel—not all at once, but by a thousand little cuts, precisely and beautifully administered.

(The Sense Of Weariness Was Already In Evidence Last Year…)
One can hardly do better than to cite M.H. Miller of ARTnews, a longtime friend and colleague of the author, who headlined a story on the 2014 fair as follows: “A List of Things at Art Basel Miami Beach That I Don’t Like In The Order In Which They Occur To Me.”

Art Basel Miami Beach Is Dead, Long Live Miami Beach
On one of the artificial islands in Biscayne Bay built by those intrepid late-19th and early-20th-century city fathers, a jet-setting art dealer has just completed work on a new home. For the duration of Art Basel, the dealer filled it with extraordinary Old Master paintings, from Italian altarpieces to Dutch genre scenes and beyond. Open by invitation only, it was the kind of stuff one never sees anywhere during Basel, where the sheer flood of new work somehow makes the whole business of contemporary art seem small, ephemeral and factory-made: here, at last, was unquestionable quality, greatness and certainty and tradition and power. The house was suitably grand, its ordered sequence of rooms bringing to mind a deluxe contemporary version of a European palazzo.

From the rooftop garden, a visitor could look east to the bristling shores of Miami Beach and see the new towers going up, from architect Rene Gonzelez’s high-rise condo on South Fifth to the top of Faena’s Norman Foster-designed hotel in the far distance; in imagination, one could go further, towards Renzo Piano’s upcoming tower in the 80’s, and Richard Meier’s way up at Surf Club. It would have been impossible, before the arrival of Art Basel, to imagine Miami Beach like this, or that right at the center of it there would be a house like this, filled with the art of the pristinely dead. But Basel has made its bed, and now Miami Beach gets to lie in it. Perhaps the fair will move on—apparently Austin is still weird—but regardless, the new Miami Beach will endure, becoming whatever it seems so breathlessly determined to become. Wonders, as they say, never cease.