Visual Arts

Grove at Grand Bay: sustainable splendor

The twin towers of the Grove at Grand Bay have helped to rebrand Coconut Grove for the 21st Century.
The twin towers of the Grove at Grand Bay have helped to rebrand Coconut Grove for the 21st Century.

“It’s really true how nothin’ matters, No mad, mad world and no mad hatters…”

— “Coconut Grove,” John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, 1966

On first impression, it looks like a purely aesthetic move, conceived from the outside in: twisting, tornado-like forms that draw the eye skyward and create a highly animated presence among the static and rather dowdy high-rises along South Bayshore Drive. In fact, the shapes of the Grove at Grand Bay were generated by inward necessities following an exhaustive study by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and its director, Bjarke Ingels — 42-year-old design prodigy, Danish wunderkind, and former disciple of Rem Koolhaas — who came up with the operative trope, the working mantra for the project: “We have to ‘Re-grove the Grove,’ ” he said, somewhat cryptically but with conviction.

“The Grove needed a catalyst,” said Terra President David Martin, who developed the $400 million project. Ingels’ innovative design may have already become that catalyst, transforming, revitalizing and rebranding the oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood in Miami, bringing the formerly sleepy bohemia that John Sebastian sung about in his 1966 song “Coconut Grove” screaming into the 21st century. (There are reports that local merchants are already enjoying a subtle bump in business.)

When you approach from the north, cruising down Bayshore Drive — past waterfront parks, marinas, restaurants with quaintly nautical themes — the North Tower helicopters up, on axis with the four-lane avenue, and becomes a new entry point that is at once inviting, edgy and ultra modern. (Even the frumpy brown-and-beige office buildings from the 1980s seem refreshed.)

The three-acre lot on South Bayshore Drive was a difficult, narrow site with sloping grade. Since the Grove has a 20-story limit, the only solution was to build two buildings. One of them would be blocked by the other, thereby setting up a back-and-front condition in which one would be the “good” tower with expansive water views, while the other would be the “bad” tower with lesser views. To further complicate matters, the ground floor had to be 13 feet above grade in accordance with FEMA flood regulations.

“As soon as we articulated those concerns, they started to shape the building,” said Ingels — who, along with his design team, searched for the ideal form that would allow maximum views for every unit in both buildings. They made dozens of three-dimensional studies, carved from different materials. Some of the models look like drifting icebergs, others like twin-tailed ziggurats, Mobius strips, terraced hillsides or stacked biscuits. Gradually, the architects settled on tornado-like forms that were each 20 stories high — twisting sisters — to achieve the most effective orientation.

“The two towers respond to the site and to each other,” Ingels said in an exclusive interview with the Miami Herald. “They become equally privileged.

With a total of only 98 units, (two or three per floor), there is a substantial reduction in density, much lower than the 440 units allowed by local ordinances. Functions are hidden beneath a multi-level plinth that slopes from 13 feet above grade to 30 feet further inland, and this podium has been “groved over” by a carpet of jungle-type vegetation.

Floor plates rotate three feet at every elevation, from the third to the 17th levels, and a series of sloping columns support the periphery of the building. While seemingly arbitrary in their tilt, each column has been precisely calculated to offset the outward pull of the building’s load. The only thing that remains vertical is the elevator core, which has been sheathed in 3  1/2-inch-thick steel to help support the lateral load. (The top five floors are essentially “hung” from a massive head girder supported by the central core.)

“The turning creates a modern expression,” says Ingels. “It’s a return to the DNA of Miami Deco.” According to engineer Vince de Simone, the structural system called for a good deal of improvisation and was the first of its kind in the world.

Near the top, the building straightens out and continues that way for the upper five floors. “There’s a lot of effort on the first 17 floors and then the building relaxes,” says the architect. “It’s more like an apparition, something that works very hard to come up from the ground and then finds its ideal orientation.” While the towers could have continued to spiral all the way to the top, it wasn’t necessary. “The truth interests me more than a formal gesture,” says Ingels.

Now that the towers are complete, one can fully appreciate the slightly dizzying and disorienting effects, especially when compared to the bland inertia of surrounding buildings. Architect Ingels understood that the most engaging element in Miami is the sky, and his twin towers break away from orthogonal conventions as they catch sea-tinted light, wild reflections of passing clouds, especially along the turning, flaring edges. The towers shift and flicker as you walk around the site, catching light at different angles, activating the void between the two structures. Cantilevered balconies fan out like a splayed deck of cards, creating bars of shadow with 12-foot overhangs. The air feels pushed and pulled between revolving forces on either side, making for an oddly cinematic experience, and there’s an unexpected moment of vertigo while standing on solid ground, looking up.

“Bjarke manages to combine spectacular architecture with sustainability,” says developer Martin, proud of the fact that the Grove at Grand Bay will be the first Leed Gold residential building in Miami, due to the incorporation of energy-saving innovations and low-flow fixtures, as well as the use of recycled and locally sourced materials (such as oolitic limestone), and sustainably harvested wood.

The surrounding grounds — designed in collaboration with Miami-based Raymond Jungles — have been seamlessly integrated, and there is hardly any distinction between architecture and landscape, as it should be, with undulating pathways and subtropical plantings that work in harmony with the flaring decks of the buildings, as if one were generating the forms of the other: two tidal pools with attendant eddies and whirlpools spinning outward in various directions. Many of the trees from the original site were preserved and replanted. Boomerang, kidney and donut-shaped canopies surround the swimming pool terrace, interspersed with lush clusters of Sabal palms, lignum vitae, Simpson stopper, marlberry, pigeon plum, Myrtle of the river and other native species. “Our close collaboration with Jungles was like a jam session,” said the architect.

The towers are connected on the ground level by a looping concrete porte-cochère, a kind of pre-natal umbilical device that provides a ceremonial entry point as well as cover for both lobbies. From below, this structure has the groovy, mid-century flair of Brazilian modernism — something Oscar Neimeyer might have conjured up for BraSilia. Seen from above, it is a dreamily floating garden, a masterful touch that not only links the two entities but grounds them and brings their wildly acrobatic abstractions down to human scale. From an even higher helicopter perspective, the looping structure appears to be applying additional torque to the towers, like a coiled spring powering their rotation.

Interior spaces (also designed in large part by BIG) are minimal and restrained, with none of the lobby bling one finds in Miami Beach. Floors have been left in their raw, concrete state. There are simple, oak tables and amphitheater-style terracing. Sinewy black metal railings snake down the stairs, in picturesque contrast to the pale concrete surfaces. Semi-circular foot guards, made from the same blacksmith-forged metal, prevent people from banging their heads against the sloping columns that march around the interior of the lobby. Their irregularity gives them a statuesque, somewhat bizarre presence, like pagan deities.

The children’s play area — in good Danish-daycare style — has been landscaped with rocklike pods and little modernist chairs covered in woolly gray fabric. For the walls of the spa: black-and-white patterned tiles, white oak and thin slabs of Carrara marble stacked horizontally, like Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland. There’s also an attractively appointed pet spa where you can take your pharaoh hound to get a shampoo and custom pedicure any time of day.