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03.17.2014
Crit> Perez Art Museum
Herzog & de Meuron's design blurs the distinction between inside and out.
Herzog & de Meuron's new museum blurs inside and out and embraces Miami's waterfront.
Iwan Baan

It is impossible to discuss Herzog & de Meuron’s design for the new Pérez Art Museum without bringing in the firm’s other winning structure in Miami, the 2010 parking garage named for its address, 1111 Lincoln Road. Both pose the same question: Where does inside start and outside end?

No doubt, architects have tried to blur the lines on these concepts for a century, most often by diminishing exterior walls with various sorts of openings and overhangs or by moderating the boundaries with plates of glass.

With the two Florida projects, Herzog & de Meuron go one better. They simply eliminate exterior walls altogether as the perimeter of their buildings. The parking garage consists of seven stacked layers of concrete supported by a series of angled interior columns. The structure is a fully transparent loft for cars, with a 360-degree view and an elegant urban presence that has also made it an in-demand space for catered dress-up parties and art exhibits.

   
Daniel Azoulay Photography
 

The Pérez follows suit. It is basically two horizontal platforms, one close to ground level, the other three-stories up, with a collection of connected boxes positioned deep inside. Set gently on slender columns, the top layer cantilevers as much as 30 feet before connecting to any vertical plane, creating a shaded veranda that surrounds the entire museum.

Rather than being a front porch, though, these lattice-covered spaces are actual extensions of the museum itself, fully programmable for art. The open-air galleries, 80,000 square feet total, were used to their fullest potential when the place debuted in December, showing off a series of sculptures by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose work continued in a retrospective throughout the facility. The space is clearly within the museum’s periphery, though you experience it before going through any front door.

Together, the two Herzog & de Meuron buildings raise the possibility of a new vernacular for Miami, better known for piling on art deco ornamentation and sealing things tight so conditioned air can’t escape. Their breathable, stripped-down style suits the beach town’s sultry personality while functioning just fine in its warm climate.

Iwan Baan
 

Weather, in fact, is the powerful driver in the project, overseen by senior partner Christine Binswanger. Situated on picturesque Biscayne Bay in the city’s new downtown Museum Park, the $131 million building is set on stilts, which lift it above the land surface, protecting it from the rising water of hurricanes. The walls are made of concrete, a move intended to keep the heat out.     Still, the building maintains an affable lightness, thanks to the piers beneath that prop it high enough that a parking lot could be located below. The concrete is further softened by teak trim around its doorways and windows.

From far away, the building has a classical shape, it is a low rectangle with a wide, grand stair-case leading to the entrance. Closer up, it breaks all the traditional rules. The volumes are irregular and the roof is asymmetrical, trellising out farthest on the side facing the bay, rather than in front where you would expect it. The museum cafe takes full advantage by placing tables below.

 
Iwan Baan
 

The surprises continue inside, starting with an unusually long vestibule that visitors pass through before entering the galleries (climate-controlled to preserve the collection’s 1,800 objects). The lobby doesn’t seem to dump you anywhere in particular; you just sort of fall into the rest of the museum along the way.

That is a signature of the Pérez. The building doesn’t lead you as much as let you take whatever path you like through its 120,000 square feet of interior galleries. There is no great hallway with rooms on either side to guide you. A visitor is as likely to go left as right, up or down, repeat rooms or miss one entirely. Some will find this confusing, others a freeing change from the typical museum order.

There are plenty of pleasant distractions for the lost. Window boxes, with built-in seats, invite rest stops. The museum boasts free WiFi and you can check messages sitting on a second, centrally located, grand staircase, which doubles as the lecture hall when its curtains are drawn. You can admire the hanging gardens, designed by artist/botanist Patrick Blanc, which drop like green cigars along the veranda.

With most of Museum Park still under construction—coming soon: a science center by Grimshaw Architects, a landscape from James Corner Field Operations, and a potentially scene-stealing condo tower from Zaha Hadid across the street—it is hard to tell how the Pérez will relate to its built neighbors. Right now, it is an island facing away from downtown; success will depend on whether those things that arrive next can tie it to the urban fabric.

But the museum is already synched to its natural environment, notably the bay. Those windows and porches frame it at every angle and another set of stairs lead to a walkway at the water’s edge.

Such natural connections are not the norm. Museums lead design in the U.S., accounting for many of the country’s best buildings. But, too often, they overemphasize their interior missions, neglecting the beauty around them. Most museums could be picked up with a crane and dropped into another city with little loss of their design integrity. This museum, on stilts, on the water, could be nowhere else.

Ray Rinaldi

Ray Rinaldi is a cultural critic and reporter for the Denver Post.