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Miami, Gateway to Latin America

Miami, Gateway to Latin America

Absence and Presence

The idea of the modern metropolis was born in Paris in the 19th century with a sped up time dynamics established by the railway. The model spread over the 20th century and transformed the world shortening distances and urbanizing the territory, a metamorphosis widened by the invasion of the individual car. The phenomenon also reached the Third World countries, which resulted in numerous social and functional problems. The 21st century inherits the complex expansion of the human race, a situation that goes along with the generation of an “artificial world” that ends up subduing the essential qualities of the “natural world”. The grave consequences of this imbalance are becoming apparent in a rapid and dangerous way on the fragile earth’s surface, risking the future of social life. Nature’s rebellion seems irreversible in the times drawing near if intelligent solutions do not come up, solutions that can save men and cities from catastrophes that are already materialized in earthquakes and tsunamis, and which have even been announced by Hollywood films. But interpretations of urban reality diverge between Mike Davis’ pessimism and Edward Glaeser’s optimism. We should ask ourselves whether megacities like New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Calcutta, Beijing or Sao Paulo will be able to subsist. Will Norman Foster be the 21st-century Thomas More creating in Masdar, Abu Dhabi, the utopia of the first ecological city on the planet?

In spite of the generic problems that overburden contemporary metropolises –excessive population, the expansion of informal settlements, difficulties with gas, electricity, and water supplies and the disposal of garbage; environmental pollution; the predominance of the individual car over collective transportation; the scarceness of green areas and public spaces; the low density of the housing system; the precarious state control of real estate speculation- in recent decades the initiatives of social, political and professional promoters have multiplied in order to find concrete solutions with the aim of reaching a social and functional balance suitable for the future development of the cities which coincides with the identity and specificity that define them as such. As Glaeser recently proved, the world will not stop being urban and the people live in the cities because they find in them the richness of social exchange, material welfare, culture, beauty, and happiness, which are the basic desires of human beings.

In this sense, Miami is a particular phenomenon in the American urban system. Despite its youth –it is a little over a century old– it had a rapid growth, reaching 5.4 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area. It is the fourth urbanized area after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and it had the greatest migration of Latin American people in the second half of the 20th century. When the United States –with president Theodore Roosevelt, who initiated the Big Stick policy– was transformed into a colonialist power in the Caribbean region, Miami was the main link with Latin America, which led to a close relation –frontier or contact zone: 80% of commercial transactions with the South go through the city– that lasts until today. And just as in the continent’s countries the American Way of Life was assimilated –largely identified with the way of life of this almost “tropical” city– it was manifested in it the influence of successive immigrants who created the urban strata in the course of the 20th century. Miami ended up acquiring a very particular identity prompted by the interaction, in the urban dynamics, of the American model with the variations introduced by the Latin, Jewish and Afro-American communities, superimposed in “strata” that competed with each other, and maybe unjustly, tried to obscure successive historical heritages. That is why, Jean-François Lejeune called it “the city without history”, which coincides with its absence in Lewis Mumford’s monumental work: City in History. Quite the contrary, in its brief existence, it took on worldwide recognition and dimension, both as Gateway to Latin America and for being The Sun and Fun Capital of the World.

The American image

It could be said there is a certain similarity between the beginning of urbanization in Rio de Janeiro and in Miami. Not just because of the coincidence of the tropical climate, but also because of the necessity to carry on with works that transformed the marshes into solid lands and refilled the terrain in a way the islands on Biscayne Bay could be taken up. Florida was a practically forgotten territory until the end of the 19th century. Occupied by the Spanish in the 16th century, it went to English hands in the 18th century and then back to the Spanish, who finally sold it to the Unites States in 1819, to be transformed into a new state of the Union in 1845. The Seminole Indians still lived in the region and, among swamps and crocodiles in the extensive area of the Everglades, the available land was appropriate for the cultivation of citrus and avocados. At the end of the 19th century, the New Yorker businessman Henry Morrison Flagler –Rockefeller’s partner in the Standard Oil company– got enthusiastic about the weather and the beaches in Florida’s east coast –which could be taken advantage of during the winter, like the American Riviera, by the millionaires from Boston, New York and Philadelphia: Paris Singer, James Deering, John Bindley–, and constructed the railway track that would join that area with the north cities in the United States. He founded Palm Beach, where he built mansions and luxurious hotels, and in 1896 he extended the track all the way to Miami, where he located the Royal Palm hotel by the Miami River. Subsequently in 1912, he prolonged the track to Key West, which he would call Havana Express, anticipating the future touristic flow of Americans to Cuba.

The initial “American” phase is developed in the first decades of the 20th century, until the world crisis in 1929. The city is born and developed with three main focuses: the central area, which will be occupied by public buildings, establishments and offices, remaining  as a space of precarious urban development meaning; and two contrastable suburbs: Coral Gables, promoted by landowner George E. Merrick, and Miami Beach, under the control of William Brickell and John Collins. In the first two decades of the century, plots of land were sold organized with a regular layout, according to the model of the City Beautiful of Chicago, but with generous green spaces in a landscape design that takes advantage of the particularities of local nature, being adopted as the Regional City of the Future. The first modest constructions were made of wood –the cracker style according to Andrés Duany and Elisabeth Plater-Zyberk–, but when the presence of millionaires sped up, mansions and hotels were designed by architect Addison Mizner with a Mediterranean style, inspired by the Spanish baroque architecture, by the colonial one in Latin America and by the exoticism of Hollywood films. The importance of Coral Gables in Miami’s scenery was marked by the Seville tower in the Miami Biltmore Hotel by Schultze & Weaver, inaugurated in 1925.

As the city of Miami ended up established on a completely flat territory from the Atlantic coast, the streets answer a north-south, east-west regular layout, homogeneous from the center to the suburbs. The particularity of this stage was the great importance of public spaces, and that the typology of the houses did not start from a traditional American model, but it incorporated arches and yards adopted from Latin American and Spanish architecture, which established the image of the city inserted in nature, defined as America’s most beautiful tropical city. Coral Gables had a greater development than Miami Beach in those years because the urban design foresaw the existence of a business and administrative core that established the basis of the future centrality that is going to be consolidated in the nineties, locating in this area office buildings, trademark shops, fancy restaurants, besides Miami University campus. The good quality of the constructions allowed their preservation and incorporation to modern buildings, which had to respect the formal regulations and dimensions established by the city hall. But the twenties’ boom, which coincided with the années folles, was paralyzed with the terrible hurricane in 1926 that destroyed the city, and shortly afterward with the American economic crisis in 1929.

From urban vanguard to show city

Despite the crisis, which carried on for several years, Miami contradictorily had a social and architectural revival in the thirties and forties, although the city did not escape the segregated social structure that characterized American urbanism. The black workers employed in construction were situated in the neighborhoods of Liberty City, Brownsville, Overtown and Opa-Locka. They were forbidden to bathe in the beaches for white people –in 1947 the Virginia Key was created for Afro-Americans– and the famous artists who acted in the hotels in Miami Beach –Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday– could not stay in them. With the arrival of the Latin immigrants, especially Cuban ones, the economic conditions of this population got worse, prompting the violent social uprisings between the sixties and eighties. Even then, on the one hand, the exchanges with Latin America grew stronger when in 1927 the Pan American Airways flights began from Miami to the Caribbean. On the other hand, Miami Beach’s new development began with the strong presence of the well-off Jewish community from New York –George Sax, Ben Novack, Harry Mufson-, along with a middle class that settled in this area of Miami, free from religious intolerance.

The presence of the Jews in Miami Beach meant an important change in the typology of the American individual house, characteristic of this period. Apartment buildings two or three stories high began to be constructed, which located on the regular layout, made up a homogeneous urbanistic whole –between 1935 and 1941, 1 700 blocks were built–, but which left generous green spaces among the clean residential volumes. The individual dimension of the habitat was transformed into the predominance of the collective scale, of social integration. Curiously, historicist styles were left and the ascetic codes of the Modern Movement were assumed, creating an architecture –as Lejeune and Allan Shulman prove– very similar to the one being built in Palestine, in Tel Aviv. In parallel with this, going along the sea, on Collins Avenue small hotels for the middle class began to spring up, which assumed the range of colors and festive image of Art Deco, whose creativity and plastic freedom distanced them from New York models, made by Jewish architects: Igor Polevitzky, Henry Hohauser and Anton Skislewicz, among others.

With the end of the Second World War, with the rapid change of the American way of life and the wish of making up for the years of privations, it came an anxiety for pleasure, hedonism, for making the most of vacations, that made of Miami the ideal space to materialize the American Dream. With the pressure of the touristic flow, large beach hotels were necessary to go along with the desires of the American middle class mass culture. Architect Morris Lapidus (1902-2001) was the exponent of the fun aesthetics that marked his work: the Eden Rock, Sans Souci and Fountainebleau hotels, with their exuberance and tropical luxury, defined the “Miami Style” between the fifties and sixties, which characterized the show city image: in 1965 there were already 65 thousand rooms and 29 thousand apartment hotels. Without doubt, the freedom of the curved forms used and the appreciation of the public space had Copacabana and Oscar Niemeyer’s influence, which Lapidus admired in a trip to Brazil during 1949. It was not by chance that Burle Marx was invited to project the landscape architecture at the Inter-American Center (Interama) in the fifties and the Biscayne Boulevard in the eighties, as well as Niemeyer the group of offices and hotels in the Claughton Island in the seventies.

The Caribbean metropolis

The last ingredient in the definition of Miami’s identity was the “Latin tsunami” that took place in the sixties with the migration of Cubans. Till the beginning of the 21st century, the presence of Latin Americans defined the social composition of Miami and the transformation of habits and customs, in particular the use of Spanish as an alternative language to English. But the predominant population of Cuban origin was also accompanied by the presence of Haitians, Brazilians, and people from Central America, who identified the particularity of the neighborhoods – generally poor– where they settled: Little Havana, Little Haiti, Lemon City, Little Guatemala, Hialeah. At the same time, there were also present the millionaires from the north and the south who built their mansions on the islands of Biscayne Bay and along the coast of South Miami. This sociocultural contradiction made Miami’s image even more complex when the gambling, prostitution and casinos’ Mafias came into being, which defined the incongruities of the eighties, all evidenced in the film Scarface by Brian de Palma, and in the TV series Miami Vice. Also the political predominance of the Cubans marked the conservative character of the state of Miami, where the Republicans dominated the electoral scene.

The superimposition and interaction of all these influences defined the character of the “palimpsest” in today’s Miami. Despite the urbanistic plans made in the sixties were never materialized –the Magic Plan and the Doxiadis Plan–, over the last two decades the city had an urbanistic  and architectural resurgence that finally placed it among the world’s capitals. Not by chance, the architects of the international jet set like Aldo Rossi, Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, Roberto Stern, Arata Isozaki, Léon Krier, Bernard Tschumi; Kohn, Pedersen & Fox; David Chipperfield, César Pelli, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, Nicholas Grimshaw have been invited to project and construct significant public buildings. Nevertheless, the Latinos also prevail in the architectural image of Miami, and serve as an example of this the offices by Andrés Duany and Arquitectonica.

How could we define the “laminate” in Miami? The elements that make it up are: the regular layout of the traditional city, where tower blocks of apartments and offices were gradually built in the city’s central area and in Miami Beach –evident influence of Latin American cities-; the rescue of obsolete industrial areas, revitalized for cultural performances like the Design District; the suburb that stretches indefinitely as an expression of the American residential model; the superimposition of the road system, basically designed for the circulation of the individual car, with highways that cross the city in several directions; the progressive presence of shopping malls, coveted mecca of Latin American visitors, and the marked importance of the airport and port for the tourism cruises.

Which are the problems trying to be solved in this 21st century? The first one is the circulation system, based so far on the constant widening of highways, which shows its inefficiency with the constant and absurd daily traffic jams. The absence of public transportation is compensated for by the urban and suburban railway track –the Tri-Rail and the Metrorail– to move to the urban center. An expensive work is being finished –2000 million dollars, with the participation of Odebrecht–, which will establish the Miami Intermodal Center, where all systems of public transportation with access to the airport would be articulated, facilitating the movement of the millions of visitors a year. The support for the concentration of apartment and office tower blocks in the Coral Gables-Downtown-Brickell-Miami Beach axis tries to contain the expansion of the suburb and thus revitalize the insignificant urban social life in the central areas: 25 thousand apartments were built, most of them still empty. At the moment, the recovery of the public space is being carried out and the landscape areas are being requalified for the use of pedestrians and cyclists. The famous Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, rescued by Morris Lapidus in the sixties and transformed into a pedestrian walk, was strengthened by the multifunctional garage –the 1111 (Eleven Eleven)-, designed by Herzog & de Meuron (2010). The areas of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic coast were revalued with new parks and public buildings: it is recent the inauguration of the South Pointe Park and the intense social and cultural use of the park in front of the New World Symphony Campus, by Frank Gehry, in Miami Beach. The American economic crisis also affects Miami: after Los Angeles it is the city with the greatest rate of foreclosure in the country –the loss of houses due to the impossibility of mortgage payments- and of unemployment, especially among the poor strata. It is due to those enormous contradictions and differences that Miami can be considered a Latin American capital.

Rio de Janeiro, March 2012