Anybody who lives in Miami knows we’re not like any place else. (Isn’t that why we’re here?) Four new coffee table books highlight our distinctive tropical style and make ideal holiday gifts for Miami devotees and those who have yet to fully appreciate the glories of the Magic City. Together, they tell a story of Miami then and now.
“Theater of Shopping: The Story of Stanley Whitman’s Bal Harbour Shops,” by Alastair Gordon and Barbara de Vries. 270 pages. Rizzoli. $65.
While brick-and-mortar retail is struggling nationwide, Miami’s shopping centers continue to pack in crowds of vacationers and locals. It’s largely thanks to something the late, visionary Stanley Whitman discovered long ago: Shopping is about far more than acquisition; executed deftly, a shopping center delivers an entertaining experience.
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Whitman’s is a story of a rich kid determined to prove his worth in the world — and succeeding. “I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” begins the book, which goes on to detail his summers near Chicago, where he was often bullied at school, and winters in Miami Beach. His father owned one of the country’s biggest printing companies and his parents were known for their lavish Miami Beach parties.
But even those with little care for glamor and shopping will appreciate the photographs and stories of Miami Beach’s early years: how the Whitman parents built the first movie theater in Miami Beach and the first post-Hurricane apartment house. How they risked opening a luxury hotel during the Great Depression, where rooms went for the then-whopping sum of $32. It’s a story deftly told by architecture critic Alastair Gordon and his wife, former model and fashion director Barbara de Vries.
It was Whitman’s own foresight and perseverance that created a shopping mecca rivaling New York’s Fifth Avenue and L.A.’s Rodeo Drive. In a trade valued at $500,000, Stanley Whitman in 1954 acquired half-interest in the 15.89 acres site that would become the home of the Bal Harbour Shops. Even before the sale, he embarked on an anticipatory cross-country investigation of shopping centers. “Of course, I didn’t have a clue what I was looking for. I had absolutely no idea about shopping centers at that time. None,” Gordon quotes him as saying.
That may have been an advantage. After its 1965 debut, Bal Harbour Shops became the most successful shopping center in America, raking in the highest sales per square foot and drawing premier global brands including FAO Schwarz, the first Neiman-Marcus outside Texas and jeweler Cartier. Parisian couturier Andres Courreges chose Bal Harbour for its first U.S. boutique. Gucci, Yves St. Laurent, Chanel and Emmanuel Ungaro followed.
The Shops’ story is far from over. Despite increased competition from The Falls, Merrick Place, Miami Design District, Brickell City Centre (which has partnered with Bal Harbour Shops) and the Aventura Mall, Bal Harbour Shops remains at or near the top of Green Street Advisors’ most productive retail centers, with a 23 percent increase in January 2018 sales over the same period the year prior and double-digit increases throughout the year, according to the center. A $400 million, 340,000-square-foot addition is in the works. The center, still privately owned by the Whitman family, is now run by Stanley Whitman’s grandson, Matthew Whitman Lazenby.
You can see it in action any day of the week at 9700 Collins Ave. For its past, you’ll need to turn to this handsome book.
“Shtetl in the Sun: Andy Sweet’s South Beach 1977-1980,” edited by Brett Sokol. 120 pages. Letter16 Press, $40.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, on the same barrier island but worlds away from the luxuries of Bal Harbour, South Beach became “God’s waiting room.” It was sunny, warm, cheap and overwhelmingly Jewish. Orthodox men and women sat separated on dozens of hotel porches. Those who eschewed the rigor of strict religion relished their golden years, doing exercises on the sand and playing bridge by the pool.
That South Beach is long gone, subsumed by farm-to-table restaurants, late-night clubs and stratospheric real estate values. But the South Beach of yore lives on in the empathetic, sometimes poignant photographs taken by Andy Sweet, who was murdered in 1982. Here are Art Deco lobbies filled with dancers, bewigged ladies in their one-piece bathing suits, a trio of bar mitzvah boys on a sofa and the devout defying the heat in their black religious garb.
Miami arts writer Brett Sokol has carefully curated Sweet’s photos. With a personal and telling reminiscence by novelist Lauren Groff, “Shtetl in the Sun” recalls a talent, and time, that are past but worth remembering.
Sweet’s work is also commemorated in the recently released film “The Last Resort,” co-directed by Miamians Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch; it will be screened locally in February. In March, Sweet’s photos will be exhibited at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami Beach.
“Island in the Light / Isla en la Luz,” by the Jorge M. Perez Family Foundation. Tra Publishing, 2019; available for pre-order. 320 pages. $60.
Miami would not be the city we know today without the Cuban diaspora that followed Fidel Castro’s 1959 power grab. Cuban- Americans have shaped policy, politics and palates, and helped define our very skyline. They have shaped our cultural aesthetic from the dance floor to the stage, the band shell to the bookshelf, commentary to canvas.
The visual, poetic and musical arts meld in this explication of works from the collection of Jorge M. Perez, namesake of Miami’s public art museum and the city’s most prominent and prolific developer. Many of the 35 artworks by leading contemporary Cuban artists pictured here have been shown at the Perez Art Museum Miami; all eventually will belong to it.
The book, produced by the Perez Family Foundation, pairs the works with newly commissioned poems, short stories and essays by noted writers. In the process, it reveals a less-known side of the familiar Perez. “’Island in the Light’ is a project that unites three of my greatest passions — art, literature, and music — to create a fluid and spontaneous dialogue between image, word, and sound,” Perez writes in the preface. “This book offers a unique opportunity to nurture the bridges and promote conversation between artistic disciplines.” The project includes an original musical composition by Pavel Urkiza, accessed via QR codes in the book.
Most of the literary works were initially created in Spanish; in either language, they’re a treat.
“Every time I look at the sea, I remember Matias. It is an association as old as my memory,” writes Manuel Garcia Verdecia, inspired by Yoan Capote’s 2010 “Island (see-scape),“ intricately woven from fish hooks. “He was already an older man, ruddy, tall and well built, with an ever-present faded baseball cap covering his straw-yellow hair.”
Jose Bedia’s 2000 canvas, “The Poor Bewildered Cuban on Arriving in a Strange Land,” evokes this poem by Ramon Fernandez-Larrea:
when life and death wear the same face
and a powder like butterflies that sing
a child hiding inside you and everyone
screams against at a window onto a dirty alley
he says the name of the father he says the word mother
he says names that come out like a little bird
breaking its winds against night’s edges
“Island in the Light” won’t formally be available until next year, though you may find the odd copy around. You can pre-order it at https://trapublishing.com/ as a promised gift; it’s worth the wait.
“Arquitectonica,” by Alastair Gordon. Rizzoli, 2018. 400 pages. $85.
Most of the globe’s most lauded architecture firms have made their stamp on Miami: IM Pei (Miami Tower), Cesar Peli (Arsht Center for the Performing Arts), Herzog & deMeuron (1111 Lincoln Road garage and Perez Art Museum Miami), Rem Koolhaas (Faena Forum and Park Grove condo), Renzo Piano (Eighty-Seven Park condo), Bjarke Ingels (Grove at Grand Bay condo), Sir Norman Foster (Faena House condo), Richard Meier (Surf Club expansion and condo), Zaha Hadid (One Thousand Museum), Jean Nouvel (Monad Terrace), Enrique Norten (321 Ocean Drive condo).
But none has been as constant or as influential as the Miami-born firm Arquitectonica, now celebrating its 40th year. From the days of “Miami Vice” to the cusp of the 2020s, Arquitectonica and its co-founders, husband-and-wife Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear, have divined backdrops for the city’s most photogenic moments and established the framework for a lifestyle of sun, water and irrepressible energy.
“Miami seemed not a city at all but a tale, a romance of the Tropics. A kind of waking dream in which any possibility could and would be accommodated,” wrote Joan Didion in her 1987 book, “Miami.” And because that is still so true, architecture critic and part-time Miamian Gordon quotes it in his new survey of Arquitectonica’s work.
The firm has long had an international presence, amply reflected by Gordon’s focus on some 50 of the firm’s 450 built projects — Banco de Credito in Lima, Banque de Luxembourg in Luxembourg, Microsoft’s European headquarters in Paris, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Performing Arts and Convention Center in Dijon, and spectacular residential, commercial and mixed-use towers in Singapore, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Ho Chi Min City, London, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
Of the firm’s early work, Gordon writes, “Arquitectonica’s new structures were anything but predictable, taunting the old order, verging on the subversive.” Sometimes too subversive; its 1983 design for New York’s South Ferry Plaza proved too adventurous and was never built.
But what was too radical for New York was perfect for Miami. Arquitectonica “understood the poetics of sun and shadow, how a simple stucco wall became animated when struck by tropical sunlight, turning it into a foil, a blank screen, for the play of interlacing shadows,” Gordon writes.
Its Miami projects have defined both the firm and the city, from the recently razed Babylon building to Brickell Avenue, the condos of Edgewater and downtown, Miami Beach and university campuses. What would the city be without the unconventional stylishness of Brickell Avenue’s Atlantis condo window with its circular red stair, the sleek curve of AmericanAirlines Arena, the new canopy of Hard Rock Stadium, the glassy angularity of the Wilkie Ferguson Federal Court House, the sleek new facade of the Miami Beach Convention Center, the towers and wavy canopy of Brickell City Centre, or the dramatic simplicity of the University of Miami’s new Concrete Studio? It would not be Miami.