Visual Arts

Condo tower is a powerful first salvo in Miami Beach Faena complex

Faena House lobby.
Faena House lobby.

It started as a whim. Architect Brandon Haw was visiting Alan and Ximena Faena in Punta del Este, on the coast of Uruguay, when they had the idea to create a luxury tower in Miami Beach that would feel as open and casual as a beach house. This initial thought lead to a fully formed apparition of a building hanging above the sea, rising out of the water.

The so-called “Cloud Vision” took the form of 14 ghostly planes hovering in horizontal fashion above an ocean flecked with golden reflections. The sun is rising in the background, above the mottled blue-gray surface of the sea and water-saturated clouds. It’s an image, a kind of mirage, that is at once heroic and ironic, a vision of things to come, a vision that raises the question: Is Miami rising or is it sinking?

Over time, the Cloud Vision evolved into the present Faena House, designed by Foster + Partners, that was completed this week and made front-page news when the penthouse unit sold for $60 million, beating all previous records.

The real news, however, is the subtle but sophisticated design of the building itself. Project architect Haw and others on the Foster design team stripped everything back to the basics and studied the most elementary conditions of sun, sea, sky and sight lines; the position of the building in relationship to the neighboring former Saxony Hotel (1948); the deepness of the overhanging floors; the height of the lobby level; how the building addresses Collins Avenue to the west and how it connects to the beach and public walkway to the east.

There is a bulging, undulating softness to the forms that relate back to the “Cloud Vision” of 2012; a kind of vertical stacking and layering of white against black, transparency against opacity, all of it accentuated by deep overhangs and extra-wide terraces known as aleros in South America. The aleros envelop each floor to a depth of 37 feet in some places. The floors jut out like white trays with upturned edges, made from post-tensioned concrete slabs that allow for such deeply cantilevered overhangs. As the building rises to its 18-story height, it is cleaved down one side to provide separation between balconies, and it steps back at the very top where there’s an infinity pool that appears to be suspended in perfect balance.

(In some ways, the entire building acts as a multi-layered infinity pool, fostering the illusion of a seamless merging between water, sun and sky.)

When I first saw the scale model, I didn’t get it. The architecture seemed somewhat contrived, a caricature of the kind of condo towers you find anywhere in the world, with softened contours and broad overhangs — something like 1980s hairdos. Now that it’s finished, and in near-pristine condition, the building makes a very different impression at full scale.

The overall effect of upward hovering is accentuated by the fact that the lower-lobby area is so noir, almost lost in the building’s own shadow with angular pylons and a bed of black river stones that wallow beneath the shallow waters of a series of reflecting pools that surround and penetrate the base of the building, as if foreshadowing a future of sea-level rise. The structurally supporting forms feel monolithic and ancient. Rough-edged and weighed down by gravity, they serve to counterbalance the helium-filled lightness of the upper decks. The concrete surfaces absorb light like shamanic shields, while the water that surrounds the pylons reflects the obsidian forms below, as well as the sky above.

“The light in Miami is so bright,” said Haw. “I wanted people to move into this darkly shaded entrance that was protected from the heat by a thermal mass of concrete and these shallow pools of water.” It’s an unexpectedly northern exposure for subtropical Miami, a witch’s brew of strident forms and subtle contrasts. The 35-foot-high plinth was made of Darth Vader-black concrete poured in place with a nubby aggregate (dark pebbles shipped from Georgia) dyed with Bayferrox iron-oxide pigment, made in Germany. “We wanted to get it as dark and mysterious as possible,” said Haw. Once set, the concrete was finished with a custom-designed rig that moved up and down the walls, grinding and polishing the concrete until it attained a smooth, reflective surface.

For a lobby in Miami Beach, it is conspicuously restrained. There are no bright colors, garish bling or oversized chandeliers. The only colors — other than black, gray, white and off-white — are the red and orange strands of a dangling Plexiglas installation by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez that hangs in the main lobby.

“It’s all about control and restraint,” said Haw, who prefers to work with subtle variations in tone and surface treatment. His father, Ken, was a minimalist painter whose less-is-more sensibility evidently passed on to the son. Panels of combed Venetian plaster alternate with sheets of blackened stainless steel from Japan and the primary concrete walls.

“Everything remains dark, right into the elevators,” said Haw, and the same muted palette leads up to the private vestibules and service entries of the 47 luxury units, including the sprawling 8,273-square-foot penthouse, the one that sold for $60 million.

When you enter the still-empty rooms of the upper levels, it makes for a shocking transition after the moody, regimented lobby. The lens shifts from dark to light and space expands at a precipitous rate, out to the very limits of expectation. The sunlight is glaring against the white walls and floors, and views spool outward on all sides.

Patterns of repetition and recognition, of black against white, are carried into the upper floors with monolithic slabs of matte charcoal set back in ziggurat style and angled forward, between bright Venetian terrazzo below and pale overhangs above. This sets up a kind of diminishing perspective that leads the eye and body toward the infinite horizon where sky meets sea — the ultimate payoff here —and one that is both framed and measured by the building’s elemental forms. The overall effect is almost metaphysical in its suspension of scale, distance and time: Think Giorgio de Chirico’s Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) — with no apparent break, even at the corners where the wide aleros curve around in a gentle arc, sponging up a delirious excess of space.

A good deal of attention went into the details of the aleros’ balustrades. They are made of glass fiber-reinforced concrete that was prefabricated in Texas. The lower part of the balustrade leans in at a 45-degree angle and supports a seamless panel of curved hurricane-proof glass that is high enough to provide privacy from below, but low enough to allow water views from a seated position. Ergonomically shaped handrails were made of acrylic polymer Corian so as to be smooth and cool to the touch.

“We kept asking ourselves, how do you place your hand on a handrail?” Haw said.

It’s hard to say, but I wonder if there’s not a certain vulnerability and sense of isolation that comes from living in an idealized state of $60 million suspension, dwelling within a Cloud Vision with so many softened corners and infinite horizons. I keep thinking of the digital renderings you see in Miami real-estate brochures: An attractive single woman is dressed in flowing white garments — it always seems to be a woman in flowing white garments — and she stands on a cantilevered balcony, looking out toward the aqua-blue horizon. Who is this woman and what is she thinking?

The formula for building luxury condominiums is fairly predictable and outdated, but Faena’s team of “urban alchemists” is testing the boundaries and breathing new life into the genre, attempting an alternative to the stand-alone tower that is otherwise disconnected from a city’s social fabric.

Faena House is only the first in a series of iconic buildings to be erected. Its open, breezy imprint will eventually extend to the entire Faena District and be connected with pathways and lush landscaping by Raymond Jungles. The Faena Hotel, formerly the Saxony, stands on the neighboring lot and is set to open in mid-November. Directly across Collins Avenue is the rotunda-shaped Faena Forum, an interactive kunsthalle with a basket weave of crisscrossing fenestration. It was designed by Rem Koolhaas (OMA) and when finished, will be open to the community at large with exhibitions and performances.

There will be another residential tower by Haw, as well as a restored Versailles Hotel and a retail bazaar to support the work of up-and-coming designers.