Nearly 40 years ago, the young architects in a new, untested Miami firm got their first chance to prove their commercial mettle with a devilishly tricky commission: To design an apartment building on a Brickell lot so long and skinny it’s like a sliver of pie cut by a dessert lover on a diet.
The clever solution they devised — an elongated ziggurat with a red front and ship-like balconies which they named the Babylon Apartments — was so startling that it set a new bar for urban architectural pizzazz in Miami, promptly won a major prize and set the unknown Arquitectonica on a path to becoming a global design force.
Now the writing may be on the wall for the Babylon: The city of Miami and the building owner are working to have the landmark building erased.
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The city administration has condemned the building, claiming it’s unsafe. In an unusual move, city planners are also backing a request for a substantial increase in zoning from owner Francisco “Paco” Martinez Celeiro that might allow him to replace the five-story Babylon with a 48-story tower.
The rationale for the upzoning cited by city planning director Francisco Garcia and Martinez’s attorney: That the existing zoning designation, which limits construction on the property to eight stories, is the result of a “scrivener’s error” during the drafting of the city’s Miami 21 code several years ago, and should have been capped at a much higher 48 stories.
But there’s a problem with that assertion. Both the city planning director at the time of the drafting, as well as the chief Miami 21 consultant — by chance, one of the founding Arquitectonica members who worked on the Babylon — emphatically say there was no error.
In fact, the consultant — architect and planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk — said the Miami 21 zoning designation for the property, which sits at the northeastern edge of the semicircular Brickell Bay Drive, was “very carefully considered” to match the zoning capacity allowed by the old code they were replacing.
The planners say they were deliberately trying to preserve the Brickell Bay block’s existing density, which is less than that in the surrounding blocks of supertall Brickell towers, to avoid giving property owners a gift of extra development capacity over and above what they could build under the old code.
“It was not a mistake,” said the former planning director, Ana Gelabert-Sanchez, adding that she specifically recalls the discussion over that block because it was among the first in the city to be mapped under Miami 21. “It was not a scrivener’s error. We went through a lot of work to really calibrate capacity.”
Building owner Martinez, a longtime Miami real-estate investor who under the name George Martin starred in European “spaghetti western” movies in the 1960s, did not respond to two messages left at his office requesting an interview. His attorney, Vicky Garcia-Toledo, cancelled a scheduled interview on Friday, citing a legal emergency.
The assistant planning director, Luciana Gonzalez, said in an email that planners deduced the Babylon zoning was a mistake for largely technical reasons — that there’s a mismatch with the underlying land-use designation, which allows a much higher density. But Gelabert-Sanchez said the two separate designations don’t have to, and often don’t, match.
Gonzalez said planners did not check with Gelabert-Sanchez or Plater-Zyberk because the inconsistency “was clear to us” and “merits correction.”
The city and developer may have walked into a lion’s den of controversy. The requested upzoning and the possible demolition of the Babylon have set off an uproar among architectural experts who say it’s among the most important Miami buildings of the 1980s — because of its role in resetting the evolution of Brickell and in the establishment of Arquitectonica, which has since designed scores of buildings across Miami and the world.
“I think it’s a beautiful building,” said Miami architecture critic Beth Dunlop, author of two books on Arquitectonica’s work. “It shows how, even when their work is really avant-garde, it’s really steeped in architectural history.
“It’s such a shame,’ she said of the building’s possible destruction. “It’s not how you create a memorable city.”
Residents of surrounding buildings, meanwhile, have hired lawyers to contest the upzoning and launched a Change.org petition addressed at the new district commissioner, Ken Russell, that cites concerns over lost views and increased population density and traffic in an area already nearing capacity. Some say they bought units overlooking Brickell Bay Drive in the belief the relatively low zoning would protect their views long term.
The city commission was supposed to consider the upzoning last week, but it was deferred to March 24 without a hearing amid the brouhaha. The city’s planning and zoning board in January voted 7-4 against the rezoning.
“We felt it was out of scale and did not respect the heritage of the site,” said veteran planning board member Ernest Martin, who voted against the rezoning, in an interview after the vote.
Opponents of the upzoning contend the city and developer have engaged in a subterfuge to justify the higher zoning and question how a building that’s less than 35 years old could be in a state so dire it has to be demolished. Some have accused Martinez of deliberately failing to maintain the building.
“They have nothing to show there was ever an error. No document, no map, nothing,” said Stephen Helfman, an attorney representing the condo association at the Jade, a newer and much taller tower that sits catty-corner to the Babylon. “They made it all up.
“And there is nothing — no hurricane, no fire — that caused this building to be in the condition it’s in. These people have intentionally allowed this building to go into disrepair. They just want more. The upsetting thing is, why has the city participated in that? There is no justification for it.”
It’s unclear why the city declared the building an unsafe structure, giving Martinez 300 days to repair or demolish it. The city failed to provide a copy of a report on the building’s condition, a public record, by deadline Friday. The Herald requested the report Feb. 26 and reiterated the request twice subsequently.
The underside of the building’s exterior eaves, which appear to have crumbled in places, show evidence of patching as well as unrepaired damage. The building, which has around 14 apartments, is at least partially occupied. Deeds show Martinez has owned the building since 1989, Helfman said.
Although the Babylon was designed in the late 1970s, when it won the vaunted national Progressive Architecture award, records indicate it was completed in 1982. Either way, it’s too recent to qualify for protection as a city historic or architectural landmark under the standard 50-year threshhold, though that can be waived for buildings of unusual merit.
The Babylon was Arquitectonica’s first building and only its second design, after the famed Pink House designed for co-founder Laurinda Spear’s parents in Miami Shores. Spear was primarily responsible for the Babylon, whose name was inspired by its ziggurat shape — itself a response to the narrow site and the need to set the building back from adjoining houses that have long since vanished, some of the founding Arquitectonica members recall. Spear also did a set of romantically surreal pencil drawings of the building that drew wide attention among architects and designers.
The Babylon also helped the young architects set the design template for a trio of subsequent larger Brickell condos credited with helping revive Miami’s image and propel its urban revival, including the Atlantis — the famous tower with a square hole and a palm tree in the middle that was featured in the opening titles of Miami Vice.
Arquitectonica co-principal Bernardo Fort-Brescia, who is married to Spear, declined to comment on the Babylon’s fate. Spear and Fort-Brescia took the firm’s helm in the 1980s after the three other co-founders split off.
Plater-Zyberk, who says she drew the construction documents for the Babylon, said she’s ambivalent about saving modern buildings because the criteria for doing so have not been fully developed. But her blunt-spoken husband, architect and planner Andres Duany, also an Arquitectonica co-founder and with Plater-Zyberk a founder of the influential New Urbanism movement, did not mince words.
“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 said. “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.”
Critics of the rezoning raise further issues. They note the Miami 21 code allows zoning increases only from one category up to the next, a rule that seems to bar Martinez’s rezoning request, which would leapfrog several levels. Beyond that, given the narrowness and reduced dimensions of the lot, which is barely a third of an acre, opponents say it doesn’t seem possible for a 48-story tower to fit on it because there would scant room for required setbacks and parking.
The Babylon, surrounded by houses when built, is now hemmed in by newer, taller condos on either side. That’s a circumstance that Architect magazine, which sponsors the Progressive Architecture awards, lamented in a look back at the Babylon and the Atlantis, which also won the same prize.
Wrote Thomas Fisher, architecture dean at the University of Minnesota: “The bloated development along Biscayne Bay gives new meaning to the term ‘Miami vice,’ making you yearn for a time when these sensual Arquitectonica buildings evoked a city still in command of its senses.”