Miamiʼs cultural and civic milieu is augmented by a consciously anti-iconic museum for modern art by Herzog & de Meuron
Originally a southern backwater largely dependent on tourism, over the past 50 years Miami has grown into a Latin American metropolis, a haven for penniless Haitians, Cuban professionals, fugitive plutocrats and other malefactors of great wealth. Castro launched the tide and − though Cuban emigrés will celebrate his death with street parties − he deserves a statue as a city benefactor. Yet though this new wealth spurred building booms, it brought little good architecture. Spanish Revival and Art Deco prevail, enlivened by the PoMo extravaganzas of Arquitectonica and a scattering of generic high-rises. Frank Gehry’s populist New World Symphony concert hall raised the bar, as did, more emphatically, a radical and elegant open-sided parking garage by Herzog & de Meuron (AR June 2010), who also designed an apartment tower.
The Basel-based firmʼs latest foray into Miamiʼs unique milieu has produced the new Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), an inspired response to cityʼs subtropical climate and to its waterfront. Slender concrete columns support a deck raised over ground-level parking and a canopy that soars 23 metres high to shade a three-storey block of galleries and support spaces. The museum’s previous home was a hermetic Philip Johnson bunker that turned its back on the city; by contrast this new structure feels fluidly open and transparent. It reaches out through landscaped terraces to engage the bay, a string of public parks, the towers along Biscayne Boulevard, and its near neighbour, Grimshaw Architects’ Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, due to open in 2016.
PAMM is named after its lead donor, Jorge M Pérez, a developer with a passion for architecture. Terence Riley, who left his job as chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA to direct the museum from 2006 to 2010, was chiefly responsible for the selection of Herzog & de Meuron and helped shape the programme. Riley made it clear he didn’t want an icon, and this was welcome news to the architects, who have designed 14 museums − ranging from the intimate Sammlung Goetz near Munich to the huge Tate Modern − and were eager for a fresh challenge. Jacques Herzog dismissed the Art Deco buildings that are a signature feature of Miami as ‘decorated boxes with no great relationship or exchange between inside and outside’. Openness − literal and symbolic − was a principal concern for the client and Christine Binswanger, the senior partner who headed the architectural team. The museum was to grow from 3,500 to nearly 14,000 sqm and become a new kind of institution, with a mission to educate, and connect a burgeoning art scene to the rich cultural diversity of the city. The goal was to create a destination where casual visitors will stop by to take in the views or have a coffee in the park, and stay on to explore the art.
The big challenge was to create a balance of openness and protection from heat, humidity and storms. Different options were considered but the essential features came early: a platform above storm surges and a canopy to shade the buildings, the terrace that wraps around it, and a portico facing east over the bay. A towering structure that could have felt intimidating has an almost ad hoc character around the edges, where the wood battens bolted to concrete beams thin out. Greenheart wood is left unfinished so it will weather to a silvery tone. The battens are laid at different heights, running east-west, or north-south. They block the sun but allow bars of light to play over the columns, paving and projecting concrete walls. Vertical planters by French horticulturalist Patrick Blanc are suspended from the canopy, contributing to the cooler microclimate in the shaded area.
Landscaping is integral to the architecture. Palms shade a terrace stepping down to the water and a city park, as well as a garden to the west that will be shared by the art and science museums. As you approach PAMM through this greenbelt, it appears surprisingly fragile, as though the next hurricane might sweep it away. Close up, however, you realise how tough and rooted it is. The columns distribute the load evenly. The massive concrete bays that enclose the storage areas at the north-west corner and five second-floor galleries jut out beyond the reinforced glazing. Their surfaces are chiselled on the outside and smoothly finished within − or clad in drywall to facilitate the installation of exhibitions. ‘We wanted the building to be rough, to feel real, inside and outside − and not just invent another interesting cladding,’ says Binswanger. ‘Concrete as a structure and a finish has rarely been done around here, and even less for museums where it has to be precise and pristine.’
The sense of materiality is pervasive. You enter through a double set of massive teak doors. Gallery floors are polished aggregate or quarter-sawn oak with a scored finish, and recessed fluorescent strips in the concrete ceilings lead you forward. Surfaces are tactile, from the oak-lined lift cabins to the architect-designed stools and benches, and the upholstered, wood-backed seating alcoves that encourage visitors to linger.
The high-ceilinged lobby that runs the full width of the building offers a taste of what is to come. From the reception desk you can glimpse the galleries beyond. Changing installations are shown to the left; a shop to the right leads to a café that opens onto the portico. As a former curator, Riley understood the varied needs for display, and asked the architects to design a fluid configuration of versatile but distinctive galleries, rather than the conventional enfilade of white cubes. Selections from the modest collection are in open spaces that eddy around enclosed galleries of different sizes. The smaller, naturally lit rooms may house a single work or thematic show; more ambitious exhibitions are presented in a linked trio of spacious galleries on the second level. It’s a layout that invites discovery and requires no signs to orient the visitor.
Cushioned wooden bleachers link the first and second levels, with an open staircase running up one side. Unlike conventional museum auditoriums, it is constantly in use, for lectures, talks, concerts and movies that can be projected on the front wall. It also provides one of the many surprises along the architectural promenade that weaves through and around the museum. The top-floor offices, classrooms, library and boardroom are set back behind a deck with sweeping views from all four sides. In demand for weddings, receptions and conferences, these spaces generate income while cementing the role of the museum in city life. ‘We love civic museums,’ says Herzog. ‘They should be as open as possible to a variety of attitudes and forms.’ PAMM has shown its appeal by drawing as many paying visitors in its first four months of operation as were expected in the first year.
Still more remarkable, it is a model of sustainability, employing mainly passive strategies, with the canopy and planting make a big contribution to climate control. As Reyner Banham explained in Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, a pool of shade around a building can greatly reduce the need for air conditioning, and visitors are happy to sit out under the portico as they did on their home porches in simpler times. The architects took the same approach in their Miami Beach parking structure, providing fresh air and clear orientation in contrast to the claustrophobic labyrinths motorists are generally condemned to use.
For Thomas Collins, who followed Riley’s path in leaving MoMA to become director of PAMM, there’s an opportunity to exhibit unfamiliar names, celebrate African-American and Latin American artists, and give those communities a sense of involvement. Revisionist and inclusive, the museum can become a point of focus and pride for a fragmented, multicultural metropolis that, like LA, has yet to forge a strong civic identity. It can also raise the bar for architecture in southern Florida and for the reimagining of museums worldwide.