A Murmuration of Starlings

Olson Kundig’s design for the 38 Beams VIP lounge.
Courtesy Olson Kundig

Art Basel Miami Beach/Design Miami
December 3-6, 2014
Miami and Miami Beach, Florida

The Miami Art/Design Fair week starts quietly with a murmuration of starlings, a blob-like cluster of birds flying in perfect formation while re-morphing, changing shape, and moving up and down the horizon, but retaining their amorphous sense of unity throughout the aerial dance. I am stuck in traffic, trying to reach the first of many events, when just as suddenly the birds vanish. The moment of unexpected natural beauty will resonate throughout the week as a revelatory message of sorts. I only have to figure out what it means.

The week begins at 4:00 p.m. with a tour of the newly refurbished Design District with developer Craig Robins and Mathieu Le Bozec of L Real Estate (an LVMH subsidiary). With all the millions flowing in, Robins has managed to skip several stages of gentrification and go straight to platinum luxury utopia. More than a hundred luxury brands are either already open or will soon be open, including Bulgari, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Pucci, Versace, Dior, Givenchy, Dolce & Gabbana, Hermès, Tom Ford, etc. One looks for the grand architectural gesture and finds instead a high-end shopping mall, a protected urban space fortified with luxury brand logos and a variety of surface treatments. Much of the effect is just that, special effects, well-placed claddings, wrappings, and graftings, a kind of architectonic nipping and tucking that employs reflective glass, mottled surfaces, and theatrical lighting to achieve the desired suspension of disbelief. Will it be an effective enough illusion to lure zillionaire shoppers from the lush comforts of Bal Harbour Shops and the other high-end venues of South Florida? Without them, the heady rise of the Design District may turn into an equally precipitous decline. The new Palm Court creates a conspicuously fortified enclosure to protect Manolo Blahnik–wearing shoppers from accidentally bumping into urine-scented street folk, but the plaza is semi-public, open on the north and west to pedestrian traffic, and soon there will be an outdoor cafe on the second level and a handsome cast-concrete public events space designed by Aranda/Lasch to help lure non-shoppers deeper into the complex.

 
Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome in the Miami Design District.
Courtesy Alastair Gordon
 

Some of the unfinished buildings have been draped with translucent mesh veils that give them a mysterious, burka-like presence. There’s also an element of folding and pleating going on in some of the facades. The Aranda/Lasch building is clad in cast concrete slabs with patterned imprints that mimic a kind of embroidery. The two-story arcade of narrow glass fins by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto reads as a lattice of chilly blue icicles. It may help to break the ferocity of the Miami sun while framing the shops along the southern side of the Palm Court, but its engineering seems fussy and needlessly overwrought.

The district is desperately in need of more parking, as is all of Miami, and the origami-like folds of Leong Leong’s unfinished multi-level garage on North Miami Avenue are best seen from the elevated perspective of I-195 as blue-and-white metallic membranes appear to crinkle from side to side as one drives by at 70 miles per hour.

The Design District’s star attraction, however, is Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye dome that dropped like an alien intruder into the very heart of the complex. It’s a digitally re-engineered version of the original 24-foot-diameter Fly’s Eye that was fabricated in 1979 by John Warren and is now installed on the western deck of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, two miles to the south. The new version was built by Daniel Reiser to meet local codes, and has already become the symbolic centerpiece of the entire Design District, upstaging all of the architecture that surrounds it.

 
Design Miami entry pavilion.
Courtesy Alastair Gordon
 

I arrive late at the opening reception for the Edition, the renovated former Seville Hotel, pushing past tall thin models in black lycra mesh who stand guard with transparent clipboards as shields, like the “Hounds of Hell,” as one rumpled writer suggests. Ian Schrager concocted the refurbished hybrid hotel in tandem with Arne Sorenson of the Marriott. John Pawson is project architect and interiors are by Yabu Pushelberg with black walnut veneers and sandy shades of beige with creamy pale undertones. We sit in the Matador Room and listen to Shrager and Sorenson compliment one another and explain how they had created the highest-end luxury boutique hotel on Miami Beach, comparing their efforts most humbly to the corporate branding of Apple. The original Seville Hotel (1955) was designed by Melvin Grossman, protégé of Morris Lapidus, and the new owners want to keep its rat-pack elegance intact while smoothing and slimming it down. The Edition/Seville holds its own against the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc and only lacks the kind of money-shot moment that Lapidus was so good at choreographing. Grossman outdid his mentor when it came to an outdoor circular bar and a multi-level diving platform, both of which have been lovingly restored along with the oversized chandeliers and gold mosaic columns in the lobby.

   
Jeanne Gang’s Thinning Ice installation.
Courtesy Alastair Gordon
 

Design Miami opens for previews on Tuesday and at last acknowledges the environment in three curated shows within the main exhibition pavilion. For Swarovski, Jeanne Gang offers Thinning Ice, an ingenious interpretation of melting polar ice caps with white enameled icebergs rising from a reflective floor laced with rivers of melted ice (tiny Swarovski crystals) flowing through narrow fiber-optic streams.

Perrier-Jouët’s Ephemera by Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler is a mechanical ornamental garden that rises and falls in response to human movements around a large oak table, a sweetly melancholic reminder of man’s love-hate co-dependency with nature. Olson Kundig Architects have delivered the finest gesture of the show with their lounge installation called 38 Beams, bringing a muscular Northwestern vibe to Miami’s often-ephemeral sub-tropical environment. It’s a kind of Lincoln Logs stacking of horizontal beams that allows for visual and atmospheric penetration from the main hall so that VIPs won’t feel so lonely and removed while sitting within, sipping glasses of Perrier-Jouët. The massive beams, measuring about 15 inches by 30 inches and 30 feet long, were recycled by Olson Kundig from an old industrial building in Los Angeles, refurbished, flame-proofed and then lightly sanded.

Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome in the Miami Design District.
Courtesy Design Miami
 

On Thursday morning I am obliged to moderate a fractious panel on the theme of “The Future of Design” with furniture diva Patrizia Moroso, Italian architect/designer Piero Lissoni, and Israeli-Brit enfant terrible Ron Arad, who speaks about his remodel of the Watergate building in Washington, DC. In addition to making architectural changes, Arad has designed everything from furniture to napkins and stationary with a font based on shredded documents from the Watergate hearings. He also broke up the program by presenting a new prototype based on a funky old mattress that he’d spotted on the street near his London studio. The mattress lay up against a wall, bent in half, deformed, reeking of malodorous human indignities, but he became obsessed with it, nonetheless, taking photographs, making sketches and somehow transforming it from trash into an elegant low-impact couch that he named “Matrizia” in honor of Patrizia Moroso who laughed and, on the spot, agreed to put it into production in her family’s 62-year-old factory based in Udine, Italy. A design critic from England pointed out that while most designers see a problem and attempt to come up with a solution, Arad sees a problem and creates more problems.

Friday morning, the wind whips off Biscayne Bay, seeming to pick up velocity as it caroms off buildings and spills down onto the site of this morning’s official groundbreaking ceremony for One Thousand Museum, the bone-like, 62-story tower designed by Zaha Hadid. A temporary wall of trees tips over and spreads dirt over the carpeting. Tables collapse, champagne glasses shatter. Waiters try to contain the damage. Valet parking attendants and security personnel scatter and then regroup as Hadid herself arrives, an hour late, entering the throng like a rock star, a royal personage, a diva who now finds herself surrounded by crazed fans pushing their iPhones into her face and inching closer to get a shot of the architect, now looking somewhat embarrassed, now growing concerned for her own safety as a Miami-Dade cop pushes into the mob and goes to her rescue.

There’s a champagne brunch on the beach, an immersive video event, a plastic pollution installation in Wynwood, the Peter Marino show at the Bass Museum of Art, a Prouvé demountable house at the Delano that I still haven’t seen but I give up after sitting in cross-bay traffic and finally abandon my car by the side of the road and start to cross the Venetian Causeway by foot. Protests have broken out in reaction to the Eric Garner grand jury on Staten Island. Roads are blocked and conditions escalate when news gets out about a similar case of police brutality in Miami itself: Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez, a 21-year-old street artist otherwise known as “Demz,” was run over by a squad car this morning when the cops spotted him “tagging” a private building near 24th Street and gave chase. Gutierrez died soon after.

The crowds are swelling even further, tempers flaring, momentum building as the mob moves outward and expands into a single body with a single mind: “I can’t breathe!” they chant, holding up their hands, “I can’t breathe!” echoing Garner’s dying words. The protesters march onto I-195, shutting down the highway and blocking the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a prime connector between mainland and beach, between art fairs and design shows, disrupting the to and fro, the art world gossip, the backroom deals and interviews and celebrity clusterfucks, VIP red carpets, vacuous panel discussions. Suddenly the entire Art Basel Bubble bursts with the loud refrain: “I can’t breathe!” and there is nothing left but an urge to file this report as quickly as I can. But I feel pressed to relate the ending back to the beginning—as a proper story should: The starlings rose up in their murmuration on Monday afternoon and appeared to be telling me something that I couldn’t understand. I am still at a loss for words.

Related Stories