Coral Gables Museum exhibit depicts an architectural coming of age in Miami

Does architecture, finally, matter in Miami?

And, if it does, can a new wave of skillful, interesting, even dazzling buildings foster greater attentiveness to that seemingly arcane but critically important craft in a place where so much has been thrown up on the cheap in the face of public indifference?

Those are the intriguing questions posed by Marking the Millennium: 21st Century Miami Architecture, a new exhibit at the Coral Gables Museum whose reach seeks to exceed its modest scope.

The answer to both questions, based on the evidence of the 33 civic, commercial, educational and public buildings on display in an array of sparkling architectural photographs, is a tentative yes, says the show’s guest curator, critic and author, Beth Dunlop.

The survey, augmented by a handful of architectural models, spotlights what Dunlop believes to be some of the most significant publicly accessible buildings — no condos, homes or offices — erected in Miami since 1999, when Arquitectonica’s AmericanAirlines Arena made its debut.

What it all underscores, Dunlop said, is what many increasingly believe: The young city is forging a distinctive architectural identity that markedly raises the design bar for new buildings.

“Isn’t it exhilarating?” Dunlop says, almost to herself, as she guides a visitor through the exhibit. “Gosh, when you put it together like this, it’s quite something.”

The exhibit, along with a recent show on the Miami Marine Stadium, also cements the 2-year-old Gables museum’s own identity as an outlet for local urban design and architecture that has long been lacking. Along with the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ new headquarters in downtown Miami, the museum is trying to create and engage an audience for what it calls the civic arts.

Refreshingly, the survey mixes buildings by a roster of 18 Miami architects, including Rene Gonzalez, Allan Shulman, Duany-Plater Zyberk & Co. and Rodriguez and Quiroga Architects, in among the big, attention-grabbing commissions by imported stars of the caliber of Herzog & deMeuron and Frank Gehry, and the locals more than hold their own.

The lineup includes the prominent and familiar, like the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts by Cesar Pelli and the new Marlins Park by Popolous, among some lesser-known worthies, including sunny park pavilions in Sunny Isles Beach and South Pointe by Miami Beach’s William Lane that thrust the forms of mid-20th century Miami Modern beachside design into the new century.

The styles are heterogeneous, ranging from the elegant Modernism of Gonzalez’s CIFO art center on the edge of downtown to the neo-Mediterranean of DPZ’s visitor center at Fairchild Botanic Tropical Garden, and the bold neo-MiMo of new Miami Beach Walgreens outlets by Robert Brown and Frank Demandt.

“You have this very interesting continuum,” said Dunlop, an occasional freelance writer for the Miami Herald. “You have a handful of buildings that call up the spirit of the past.”

Arranged thematically by building use, the lineup ends chronologically with Herzog & deMeuron’s new Perez Art Museum Miami, which opened in December to near-universal praise.

Like the best of the new Miami buildings by internationally famed architects, the PAMM building is steeped in Miami’s climate and building traditions, the result of careful study by the architects, Terry Riley, the architect and former Miami Art Museum director, said at a forum at the Gables museum last week. Riley’s own Garden Building, which houses the new Hermes shop in the Design District, is in the show.

Implicitly, though, the survey raises a third, unanswerable question: Will developers’ increasing infatuation with star architects snuff out opportunities for the talented locals? It’s a real concern, Dunlop says. It’s the locals who have been quietly carrying the city’s architectural traditions forward, and the development of a broader roster of local firms capable of doing interesting work is critical to Miami’s future, she said.

After all, as the show’s introduction puts it, “Cities are defined by architecture, and Miami is no exception.”