Visual Arts

Designs for Miami Beach Convention Center are sleek, smart — but flawed

Two development teams are playing a high-stakes game, vying for the $1.1 billion contract to renovate and redevelop Miami Beach’s convention center and its environs on 52 pivotal acres in the heart of Miami Beach. Both teams include legendary architects and renowned landscape designers and plans with an extraordinary level of intelligence and promise.

The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA paint the picture with a big brush and focus on those all-important links to the rest of the city. The Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and his firm BIG draw inspiration from the architectural rhythms of Miami Beach, looking closely at the vital edges and the way they relate to and even help create the adjacent neighborhoods.

Both proposals show a powerful and striking architectural vision of an urban complex the likes of which we have not seen in South Florida, or for that matter, in America: sleek, smart, sophisticated, faintly futuristic and handsome. Whichever project is picked, the key will be to hold the design to that high level.

Bounded by Washington Avenue, 17th Street, Meridian Avenue and Dade Boulevard, the site is home to the city’s convention center and much more: Miami Beach’s prized botanical garden, the historic Carl Fisher Clubhouse, the Jackie Gleason Theatre, City Hall, plus acres and acres of parking both in surface lots and in the ugly-ignominious 17th Street Parking Garage.

The mandate is no small one: reinvent the convention center (without tearing it down), add a hotel, ballrooms, parking, parks and gardens, cultural facilities, offices, shops, restaurants and rental housing while honoring, restoring, repairing or replacing what is there.

To say that both architects are brilliant and visionary is to beg the point. . Both bring to the table European-bred visions of urbanism, ideas bred in a culture where for centuries cities have incorporated big buildings —palaces, museums and other centers of culture—as part of urban life without letting them wallow in a sea of asphalt parking, American style.

South Beach ACE calls upon the work of Koolhaas’ OMA, which has offices in Rotterdam, New York, Beijing and Hong Kong. The landscape team is the much-honored firm of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of Brooklyn and Cambridge, along with Miami-based Raymond Jungles. Though its national development partner is Tishman Realty, locally the project is led by developer Robert Wennett, best known for his venturesome 1111 Lincoln Road parking garage.

Portman CMC, led by the Atlanta-based Portman Holdings and John Portman & Associates, features the rising-star architect Ingels, whose firm has offices in Copenhagen and New York, and the Dutch landscape design firm of West 8, designer of quite magical SoundScape Park in front of the New World Symphony’s building. The team’s local contingent includes the owners of the Bal Harbour Shops and developer Ugo Colombo.

But the two plans reflect strikingly different visions.

New geometry

For Koolhaas, the primary driving idea was to reduce the footprint on the ground and create strong connections to Lincoln Road and the neighborhoods to the east. “The very key is that we interpreted the convention center in its north-south orientation as an obstacle to redevelopment that separates the city and the beach conditions,’’ Koolhaas says. “By orienting it east and west we create greater permeability. That is the real achievement.”

The OMA plan places the requisite new hotel (rising gradually to a peak of 194 feet, plus a stepped-back penthouse) at the north end of the center and puts parking at the south end under what is envisioned as a hillside park of landscape over structure. The recalibrated convention center is set back from Washington Avenue to create opportunities for pedestrians to stroll along the new wider sidewalk or inside, in a new concourse. The eastern entrance lines up in exact axis with 18th Street, and the front entrance of the convention center lines up with Pennsylvania, on direct line with Lincoln Road.

Koolhaas points out that this plan introduces a new geometry, one that is not merely rectilinear but is “more organic,” with curves in an attempt to reduce the footprint and the impact of “this fundamentally alien object.”

Urban rhythm

By contrast, Ingels seeks to achieve the kind of urban rhythm that he so admiringly observes elsewhere in Miami Beach. “The main agenda,” says Ingels, “is that Miami Beach has these great walkable streets and there is a canopy of trees everywhere —as well as the Art Deco architecture. We are designing a neighborhood.”

Key to his plan is a public square that connects at a diagonal from the New World Symphony building to the project’s new freestanding ballroom. A second building (currently being thought of as a Latin American Cultural Center) would sit between the Gleason and City Hall, framing another side of the square. Two of the buildings lean out over the square (in not so much a cantilever as tilted glass walls) — providing shade outside and usable square footage within. Pedestrians would filter into the site along various walkways, along what Ingels calls “paths of green and ecological edges.”

BIG’s design wraps the Washington Avenue side of the convention center with apartments and attaches the hotel (which only rises to 124 feet) at the south end of the building. The design recalls the “eyebrows” he so likes in Art Deco buildings, but in a clearly contemporary idiom.

For him, the challenge was to design buildings that “undo the hermetic box” and frame a public realm. “To me,” says Ingels, “one very important task was creating an urban space that will feel lively even when it is not full.”

Important choice

The decision on this billion-plus dollar project will ultimately rest on such factors as money, operations, construction and timing — all of which are critical to the hospitality industry, the primary driver of this billion-dollar-plus venture. But in the end, the rest of us are left with the architecture and the way in which the design reshapes a critical 52 acres in the middle of Miami Beach; it’s what we’ll look at and live with.

And there are plenty of considerations:

Both loading plans offer a recipe for disaster. Those big trailers and containers that arrive with everything from boats to art to home goods are, well, really big, and both plans bring them into the convention center only at the north end, across from a residential neighborhood (plus the golf course) and Miami Beach High. If we are really getting a landscaped open space (with shade trees, one hopes), then neither project would accommodate the outdoor boat part of the annual Miami Beach Boat Show—unless all the beautiful shade trees on the drawings are going to be set apart enough to allow for the display of yachts (not dinghies).

Current drawings don’t offer enough architectural detail to critique, but the convention center, whichever version, has long and monolithic facades; even with a beautiful architectural treatment they will still be long, monolithic facades. It’s not been done before (that I know of), but why not seek out new technology to allow more light (and maybe even air) into the center, possibly even penetrating the space to break the center into tightly connected pieces rather than a single big monster?

Other questions abound. The ACE/OMA hotel and apartment buildings rise higher than anything else in the immediate neighborhood, raising the question at least of whether it’s better to go up or out. The Portman/BIG ballroom helps establish a sense of urban rhythm with the juxtaposition of built and landscaped environment. but what happens most days and nights when there’s no ball for us, or even for Cinderella? That’s actually a larger question involving both proposals and all the unprogrammed edges of the convention facilities. It’s a long, lonely walk sometimes.

Flawed process

Asked and most likely answered, but questions like these point up the fundamental flaw in the process.

To ask private developers to create a plan that will transform a truly critical swathe of the city, of public land, is in many ways an abrogation of governmental responsibility and one of the better examples of cart-before-the-horse urban planning in our recent history.

Whichever development group is selected, we will get its vision of these 52 acres rather than our collective vision, which should have come first to ensure that we get what would be best for the city, more than what would be best for the bottom line. And as committed and conscientious as both groups are (which is actually quite rare in the political arena), in the end, they are private developers.

In the end, the process of urban planning should be returned to its rightful place — the city government that owns the land, and the people. Then and only then would we get the convention center/theater/government complex that would really serve us, and not only in terms of attracting more business. Then the horse would be pulling the cart.