Richard Meier, the famed architect leading the reinvention of Surfside’s historic Surf Club, watches clouds drift by from the courtyard of the property, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1930 to host high society shindigs and by the 1950s had reached its celebrity-graced heyday.
He is taking the Russell Pancoast-designed landmark from sleepy private club with storied past to luxury condo-hotel, marrying the original Mediterranean Revival architecture with sleek glass midrise towers.
A soft sea breeze rustles Meier’s trademark white hair while he soaks up the sun, motionless in a white peacock chair. Then he points west to a hulking 1960s-looking apartment building cluttering the sky. From the vantage point of the Surf Club’s pool deck, the building seems like a blocky fortress intent on not letting in too much sunlight. Here it is facing the Atlantic Ocean, and it has tiny windows, no balconies.
“I think they felt that whatever they put up, it didn’t matter,” he says. “People would buy and rent in these buildings either way because of the climate and the ocean that was just a stroll away. But inside their units, they can barely open a window to see what the temperature is. You see buildings like this up and down this whole stretch.”
The Pritzker Prize-winning Meier, who designed the planned Surf Club Hotel and Residences with Miami-based architect Kobi Karp, wanted to take full advantage of the property’s eight acres of oceanfront land. And so the twin, 12-story residential buildings comprising 150 units and the upscale hotel with 80 guest rooms that they will flank appear to be made up of little more than floor-to-ceiling glass, nothing to interrupt sky and sea.
“Everyone will have a broad balcony. Everyone will have a view of the ocean or bay. The Mediterranean style and the contemporary seem to collide. But really, they co-exist, because the scale of the whole project makes sense,” says Meier, 79, whose iconic works include the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and the Jubilee Church in Rome.
“The city allowed us to go only so high anyway. But some of their regulations don’t make sense to me. I wanted 1,000 palm trees. But they won’t let me do it. They say we have to mix it up,” he says.
In addition to the trio of new buildings, the original Surf Club, with its vaulted ceilings, its grand arches and its colonnades, will undergo a major restoration. A re-conceptualized “Peacock Alley,” the elegant, cathedral-like central hallway that runs from the Collins Avenue entrance to the ocean, is expected to be opened to the public, providing access to a stretch of beach that had been available only to private members and — over the years — to guests such as Winston Churchill, General Douglas MacArthur, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gary Cooper, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra.
The beach cabanas in which all those A-listers frolicked — Churchill spent quality time painting seascapes from his — will be reconstructed. There are plans for a spa, two restaurants, multiple swimming pools. Prices for condo units range from $2 million to $35 million, which makes it one more new project intended for the wealthy international set who will likely only winter here.
Louise Sunshine, the New York condo marketing maven who has long specialized in the high-end sales pitch, happens to be here today, too. She is, of course, involved in the creating the right spin for the place. She walks you over to a rendering of the site, pointing out its position in relation to the posh Bal Harbour Shops and Indian Creek Village, home to the super-rich and to an exclusive country club and golf course.
“We’re creating a new universe here,” she says. “Look at Richard’s three towers on Perry Street in Manhattan. There was nothing there when they went up. He took that neighborhood, and he made it a world-class destination. That’s what’s going to happen to Surfside.”
Meier is one of several international “starchitects” who of late have been recruited to put their stamp on the greater Miami skyline. He sees this new wave of architecture by Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Sir Norman Foster, Herzog & De Meuron and others as a potentially important new phase for Miami.
“I think that because of the caliber of new projects currently being planned for Miami, future developers and city officials will realize you can’t just do any old project here anymore and expect it to succeed. There’s an increased awareness in Miami. The people will demand higher quality than they had.”
So what does Meier think of some of Miami’s older, more iconic architecture? Does he dig Art Deco? Does he have anything nice to say Morris Lapidus and the MiMo-era buildings around town?
“I do love the Art Deco. I love how it’s been preserved and kept up. A lot of it could have been lost. Did Lapidus do anything good? I never thought so. But I guess when things get old enough, they take on a different meaning.”
Does he like what he’s seen of Miami’s latest building boom?
“Most cities in America are so terrible. Go to Detroit or Minneapolis or Stamford. They are horrors. Absolute horrors. By comparison, Miami is a beacon,” he says. “I think what’s missing here, as far as I can see, is public spaces. People are putting up buildings but they’re not putting in public spaces in relation to the new buildings. What are some of these builders giving back to the city?”
Meier likes Miami enough to have set aside a unit at the Surf Club project for himself. He says that once the new towers are online, he’ll start spending about three months of the year here.
“I’m going to follow Winston Churchill’s lead and just sit outside and do watercolors.”