Art Basel

Miami readies its new front porch: the $131 million Pérez Art Museum

Go ahead. Grab a rough-hewn Adirondack chair, settle down on the expansively shaded deck under the pendulous greenery and bask in what may be the best public views — inside and out — anywhere along the water in downtown Miami.

This is, after all, your new museum of art — a $131 million haute-design showcase for modern and contemporary work that also manages to extend an open, dare we say homespun, welcome.

When it opens to the public at the edge of Biscayne Bay on Wednesday, on time and on budget, the strikingly original and meticulously thought-out Perez Art Museum Miami will put art front and center on the city’s landscape for the first time. In doing so, supporters and civic leaders fervently hope it will redefine Miami as a cultural destination.

With wrap-around verandas cooled by lush gardens and a monumental overhanging roof, 360-degree views of bay and city from within and without, and an adjacent new plaza, park and baywalk, the unusually porous museum could also become something else, backers say: a spectacular new front porch for the people of Miami.

“It’s going to be a Miami icon without trying to be anything other than a great museum,’’ said Terry Riley, the architect and former museum director who oversaw the launch of the building effort, in a recent public talk. “I think it’s going to be considered one of the most important contemporary museums anywhere.’’

Bold words, for sure, especially for a young institution that until relatively recently had but a small, uneven collection and a nearly invisible profile, thanks to its location behind fortress-like walls on an elevated plaza on Flagler Street.

During the new museum building’s long gestation, the use of scarce city park land and a public subsidy of $100 million (approved by voters in 2004 as part of a larger, $2.9 billion Miami-Dade County bond package) became a persistent target for critics, including some prominent local art collectors. So did the subsequent renaming of the onetime Miami Art Museum after developer Jorge Perez, whose $40 million gift of art and cash boosted its collection and bottom line but provoked raised eyebrows in the art world and a rift among the institution’s own supporters.

Against this backdrop, museum leaders say they were acutely aware of the need to avoid the cost overruns and construction issues that plagued the nearby Arsht Center even as they built a home and collection defined by high aspirations. PAMM officials say they’ve also nearly met a private fundraising goal of $120 million to supplement the public investment and create an endowment to support the expanded operation.

To design the building, Riley and board leaders picked the powerhouse Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, famed for the conversion of a massive London power plant into what is now the world’s most popular museum of contemporary art, the Tate Modern. More recently, the firm designed San Francisco’s de Young Museum, which is covered in punctured, oxidized copper and has a tower shaped like an inverted pyramid rising from Golden Gate Park. The firm, though known for its raw look and rigorous execution, has no signature style, which meant its approach would not be cookie-cutter, Riley said.

Museum leaders asked the architects not to strain for the iconic, but to come up with a cost-efficient building that would reflect Miami and make the most of the site’s waterfront location in a public park. That also meant making the place inviting to a broadly diverse audience, and flexible enough to show off a growing collection that attempts to connect modern Latin American art to its U.S. and European counterparts.

“We want people in Miami to see themselves in what we do here,’’ PAMM director Thom Collins said.

The design, developed under the leadership of Herzog & de Meuron partner Christine Binswanger, combines a subtropical aesthetic inspired by the natural South Florida landscape and folksy wood construction with what Collins calls a “supremely functional,’’ and highly energy-efficient, building plan. The designers have cited the overspreading canopies of banyan trees, supported by shoots anchored in the ground, and the offshore houses of Stiltsville as references.

The scale, Binswanger said, is “relatively intimate,’’ appropriate to the size and aims of the museum.

“We’ve seen other museums coming up in places that overdo it in terms of scale,’’ she said. “Terry was clear. He said, ‘Give me something that relates to this place, to the climate and vegetation. Use the Miami ingredients.’ ’’

The three-story building, which blends basic, easy-to-maintain materials like raw concrete, steel and untreated tropical wood with unusual refinement, also shuns the hermetic-box design of traditional museums.

Little is hidden at PAMM, which occupies about four acres on the northeast end of the former Bicentennial Park, re-baptized Museum Park. Unusually for a museum, the building has floor-to-ceiling windows at every level, including some of the biggest hurricane-resistant panes ever installed anywhere. Some have built-in window seats to encourage lingering over the views.

Because the galleries are arranged in a free-flowing fashion — which allows curators flexibility in grouping exhibitions thematically or in the traditional chronological approach — visitors are treated at nearly every turn to unexpected, dramatic views. The windows frame vistas of the bay, PortMiami and the MacArthur Causeway through the scrim of hanging vegetation and the slender columns that support the roof canopy.

“There is nowhere you can stand where you can’t see outside in at least two directions,’’ Collins noted.

The art is safe because high-tech glazing filters out heat and intense sunlight, and the building’s slatted roof canopy was designed with such precision that it keeps out direct sun at all times except for sunrise, Collins said. Mechanized screens of different thickness are lowered at night or when delicate art requiring calibrated light control is on display. In the ceilings, slender fluorescent light strips are supplemented by spots.

The building sits on a plinth over a single level of open, below-grade parking, which also provides the needed elevation to withstand storm surge and inundation.

Though its main entrance is on the south, facing the city park — which won’t be finished until early next year — the museum has no back and can be approached from all four sides through the wrap-around veranda. The slatted roof and hanging topiary, fed through a built-in watering and feeding system, filter sunlight and create a cooling microclimate. Trees and gardens in a landscape design by Arquitectonica GEO , the landscape design offshoot of the Miami firm, push through openings in the first floor veranda. Wind screens can be lowered on the deck overlooking the bay on breezy days.

Visitors can use the porch and the bayfront cafe, and the Adirondack chairs the museum provides, without paying admission.

“The idea of the deck was to create a place for people to hang out,’’ Collins said.

A broad staircase leads down to the bay’s edge. On the west, the newly finished Knight Plaza – designed by Field Operations, the firm responsible for New York’s popular High Line, the elevated park west of Manhattan’s Chelsea and Greenwich Village — separates PAMM from the new Miami Science Museum, which is under construction and scheduled for completion next year. Massive, egg-shaped white planters on the plaza have shelves for seating.

A new pedestrian promenade leads from Biscayne Boulevard to the museum’s front door and beyond it to the edge of the bay, and a new driveway on the north side provides access to motor vehicles. The long-closed Peoplemover stop at the park’s north flank has been refurbished and will provide direct access to the plaza. So will the downtown city trolley.

A covered deck also winds around the museum’s third floor, which houses administrative offices and the galleries for the museum’s popular educational program. Participating schoolkids will enjoy some of the best views in the house — a panoramic sweep that encompasses Museum Park, the cruise-ship turning basin and a straight vista down Government Cut to the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the building’s canniest gestures may be the dual role given to the grand staircase that connects the first and second floor galleries: It can be sectioned off with mechanized curtains to serve as a state-of-the-art auditorium for lectures, screenings, presentations and performances.

At least at first, museum leaders acknowledge, visitors will come as much for the building as for the art on display, which draws on PAMM’s collection, supplemented by exhibits by big names like Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei and Cuba’s Amelia Pelaez. To keep them coming, though, Collins and his curators plan to rotate exhibitions frequently and expand the collection with new gifts, long-term loans and acquisitions.

Founded in 1984 as a hall for traveling shows, the museum did not start acquiring art until more than a decade later. But its efforts were constrained by a cramped building with little storage or exhibition space and scant appeal for big-time donors or collectors, drawing rebukes from some who said it was a mistake to spend millions on a new building before the institution had a collection worthy of it.

But the museum’s bet that the reality of the new building would encourage donations appears to be paying off, Collins and Riley say. In the past several months, an anonymous donor contributed $15 million in cash and art, a number of private donors have made contributions worth around $8 million. Collectors Debra and Dennis Scholl gave 300 pieces from their collection, and museum trustee Craig Robins pledged 102 paintings, photographs, sculptures and other works, all with some Miami connection. Collectors Mimi and Bud Floback, who had contributed 20 major works to the museum in the past, donated 10 more this year.

Just days before opening, workers scrambled to take down scaffolding, make finishing touches, test alarm systems, install the art, and plant the greenery in what was still bare ground made sodden by unseasonal downpours. But, unlike the Arsht, construction issues and conflicts among contractors were rare, Riley and Collins said. And the photo finish and the controversies will be forgotten almost the instant PAMM’s doors open, they predict. Riley called it “a reset’’ for the young institution.

“All things considered, it went like clockwork,’’ he said. ‘’People who see it will have to admit they’re pretty damned impressed.’’