Most buildings need a bit of time to age, to work themselves into our hearts and minds. But once the dust has settled (quite literally in this case), it is clear that we will see the new Pérez Art Museum Miami as a masterpiece. With its great overarching latticed roof held up by thin columns and its romantic-dramatic hanging gardens, the museum seems at once real and dreamlike. You know it’s new — that really, truly, it hasn’t been there, at the edge of Biscayne Bay in what one day will be Museum Park, downtown — but this building also has an almost archaeological presence, as if it were a distant overgrown ruin that you stumbled upon.
Step back to the bay and look up, and you are in the building’s power; it is welcoming and even familiar and yet somehow exotic. The light slips through the trelliswork of the roof to cast patterns on the broad stairs, and even though this is a manmade structure of concrete and wood, there is greenery everywhere. Climb over the mounds of earth that will one day become Museum Park to see the way in which this museum seems almost suspended in midair as if it were hovering over the landscape, almost like magic.
PAMM is at once monumental and evanescent, hefty and light. There is a simultaneous complexity and simplicity to it. It is a big building (200,000 square feet) that from some vantage points looks less so, and yet from other views seems more monumental than it actually is.
The architecture refers to the open and airy tropical modernism — especially the elegant small beach houses of the Gulf Coast and closer to home, Stiltsville — found in Florida in the years just after World War II. And although it might seem a slightly more oblique reference, the vertical gardens conjure the image of Miami’s magnificent banyan trees with their air roots and hanging tendrils. And somehow, all this makes the building much less specific, somehow removed from any definition of time — even though we know it is here and now. The architects, the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, have given us a work that is powerfully connected to place.
The architecture pays homage to its extraordinary bayfront setting — with primary views out along the Macarthur Causeway to the port and Watson Island as well as back into downtown Miami, but this is also a building that imparts much larger ideas. It was designed to be as sustainable as possible (in a museum where climate control is the first order of business in conserving art) and to be a building that embraces and celebrates Miami’s subtropical climate. Even more, it is an exuberant expression of what a 21st Century museum can and must be.
PAMM offers a new paradigm for the way a museum can interact with its natural surroundings, its urban environment and the people who will use it. The museum does not by any calculus have a large collection (so far, just 1,800 pieces), and it will never be encyclopedic. And though we live in a place with a powerful attraction to art, Miami does not have a long history of museum-making or museum-going. Thus the architecture is as much about the creation of a civic institution and public space as it is about the design of box-like galleries to show painting, photography and sculpture. The architecture intentionally expresses the ideas of a democratic society, and the fact that it is so open and embracing clearly tells us that it is a museum for all and not an exclusive domain of the elite.
This is Herzog & de Meuron’s third museum in America, after the de Young in San Francisco and the Parrish in Southampton. It is their second building in Miami, the first being the much-praised parking garage at 1111 Lincoln Rd. The Basel-based firm —indisputably one of the finest and most esteemed in the world — was selected to design this $220 million structure after a lengthy and thoughtful search by then-director Terence Riley and several board members. It helped that Jacques Herzog, one of the founding partners of the firm, was thoroughly familiar with Miami as the result of numerous winter vacations here. He and partner Christine Binswanger were in charge of PAMM’s design. Added to the mix were French botanist and designer Patrick Blanc, who created the vertical landscape of hanging gardens, and Arquitectonica GEO, which designed the native landscape that both narrowly surround the museum and provide a setting for sculpture but also appears almost unexpectedly in small gardens inserted throughout the outdoor terraces.
Ultimately, PAMM will be connected to the Frost Science Museum — now under construction and designed by the British firm of Grimshaw Associates — by a public plaza designed by James Corner of Field Operations. And everything will look out on Cooper Robertson & Partner’s Museum Park, which will one day emerge from the bleak landscape of earth and rock that was formerly Bicentennial Park.
Though many museumgoers will arrive by car (a key architectural feature is one basically mandated by the storm surge line, which lifted the building off the ground and allowed for a level of parking below the first floor), the main entrance faces the future park. The large, open lobby space is dominated by the lively art installation called For Those in Peril on the Sea 2011, by Hew Locke, smaller-scale replicas of an array of boats, all hanging from the ceiling.
Turn right from the doorway and there is the gift shop, with the restaurant and bar beyond. All were designed and furnished by Herzog & de Meuron using an aesthetic in keeping with the building and its setting — to wit, diners will sit in captain’s chairs, and there are also old-style Adirondack chairs on the terrace. The 100-seat restaurant spills outdoors onto the great bayfront staircase to welcome not just museum visitors but other park-goers.
From the handsome front desk that sits along one lobby wall, museum-goers will head back to the first galleries and to the auditorium beyond. It is in no way a traditional auditorium but rather another grand staircase that can be used for lectures, films or other events or — when there is no formal event — as a kind of indoor “town square” (the museum even promises free wireless). It is a brilliant and innovative space that is purposeful and yet can remain unprogrammed, a kind of indoor public plaza.
Most of the galleries are on the second floor and are divided into four specific types —some more or less permanently installed, others for changing thematic installations and still others for traveling exhibitions. The flow allows the museum-goer to wander and make connections, gallery to gallery; a certain flexibility was needed for a museum that is growing and changing — and expanding its collection moment by moment. The galleries all have windows, some of which even have small, charming window seats.
There are basically only three materials used throughout — concrete, wood and glass (and yes some wallboard partitioning off galleries) — and each of them is left in more or less its natural state, neither tinted nor stained nor altered to look like something else.
But with that, the building has a richness that many others with what might be considered fancier finishes lack. The concrete is both precast and poured in place, some of it filled with local aggregate to look almost like terrazzo; the wood is a combination of sustainable Brazilian green heart for the roof, teak for the windows and building trim and oak on the floors. Some of the galleries have polished concrete floors and plaster-like chipboard walls that have polished concrete walls and unvarnished wood floors (it’s a lovely unexpected contrast because you somehow expect the concrete to be matte and the wood shiny, yet it’s the opposite). The top floor is devoted to education and administration and has glorious views as well as terraces, once again providing a close connection to nature.
Those connections — the manmade and the natural, art and nature — are all-absorbing here. The architecture is, in a word, splendid. That in itself is plenty, but what is remarkable here is that Herzog & de Meuron’s design was driven not just by aesthetics and engineering. The philosophical bones of this building are quite profound and embrace a host of ideas about not just architecture and environment but culture and civic life. It’s a building that has true roots. That’s what makes it seem like it has been a part of our lives already, and it ensures that it will be so for a long time to come.