One of Miami-based firm Arquitectonica’s first buildings, the Babylon Apartments, is at risk of demolition if its longtime owner—former spaghetti western star Francisco Martinez-Celeiro (also known as George Martin)—gets his way. With its bright red ziggurat form, the six-story structure is an icon of subtropical postmodernist architecture in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood and one of the signature buildings of the city’s 1980s Miami Vice era. The Babylon also earned Arquitectonica its first international award, a Progressive Architecture Citation Award, only a few years after the firm’s founding in 1977.
Although the Babylon is 34 years old—well below the typical fifty-year cutoff for historic designation—the City of Miami’s Historic Preservation board is considering the fate of the iconic structure on the grounds that it demonstrates “exceptional importance.” A final-draft historic designation report was publicly released earlier this year, causing a flurry of press and community awareness. A Change.org petition was started. The modernism-preservation group Docomomo rallied for its protection.
This attention is with good reason: Arquitectonica designed the Babylon in 1979, the same time as the much larger Palace Condominium on the other end of Brickell Bay Drive (although the Babylon wasn’t built until 1982). “It was one of our first buildings, our first building that’s not a house, and it hasn’t been kept up that well over the years,” Arquitectonica principal Bernardo Fort-Brescia recently told a group of University of Miami students.
Indeed, the building’s owner was about to obtain a demolition permit for the site in hopes of constructing a much taller building when historic preservation board member Lynn Lewis requested a report from city staff on May 3 on its potential for designation, setting in place a 120-day moratorium on demolition.
Celeiro has owned the Babylon since 1989, and has been trying to demolish the building and get its land zoned for a 48-story structure for the past two years. Up until recently it was at least partially occupied, although according to neighbors nobody has been seen inside lately.
Amidst all of this, the usually outspoken Fort-Brescia and his wife, Laurinda Hope Spear, have declined to give their own opinions on the question of preservation itself. “I shouldn’t talk about the Babylon being demolished because I’m not the one to talk about that,” Fort-Brescia said.
Architect Andrés Duany, a former principal at Arquitectonica and founder of Duany Plater-Zyberk, was much more outspoken. “Arquitectonica is the most important firm in Miami, probably in the Caribbean, possibly in the southeastern United States, in the last 50 years—since Morris Lapidus,” Duany told the Miami Herald. “If they were to demolish this building, it would be an act of cultural barbarism. Completely beneath the artistic reputation that Miami thinks it has. And it would betray that we are nothing but a bunch of swamp-dwelling barbarians. Still.”
When Miami’s historic preservation board considered the Babylon for historic protection at its July 5 meeting, the designation passed with unanimous vote of 6–0. Although this makes the designation official, the owner’s legal team submitted an appeal challenging the designation on the last day of the 15-day appeals period. The City Commission will hear the appeal on November 17, 2016.