This ‘floating refuge’ near the Miami River evokes Bogart and Bacall

Architects Melissa and Jacob Brillhart designed their Spring Garden house to harmonize with the surrounding foliage, with a nod to pre-air conditioning vernacular days.
Architects Melissa and Jacob Brillhart designed their Spring Garden house to harmonize with the surrounding foliage, with a nod to pre-air conditioning vernacular days.

Originally published in December 2015 in the Miami Herald’s Indulge magazine.

When one thinks of Miami architecture, it’s most often a flamboyant hotel by Morris Lapidus from the 1950s, a multihued tropical extravaganza by Arquitectonica from the 1980s, or an au courant luxury tower by any number of international design stars who parachute into Miami and leave their mark. The small, single-family house stands tall in American mythology — the embodiment of our dreams for a better way of life — but for whatever reason, it has not been as prevalent a typology in Miami as it has been in other parts of the country.

While handsome, the U-shaped house that Lapidus designed in 1958 for his dentist, Dr. Leonard Finn, was little more than a miniature version of his eccentric hotel layouts. Locally based architects like Wahl Snyder, Alfred Browning Parker and Igor Polevitzky offered variations on the subtropical modern home with screened-in porches and louvered doorways, but nothing of any style-shifting significance. Architectural innovation tended to be reserved for tourist amenities — hotels, motels, beach clubs and cabanas — while year-round residents lived in faux Mediterranean confections or gated communities with cookie-cutter housing.

One of the only paradigm-shifting houses to come out of Miami was the Pink House in Miami Shores that Arquitectonica’s Laurinda Spear designed in 1974 with a nod toward Lapidus, her former mentor, and Rem Koolhaas. With shifting façades and garish shades of flamingo pink, the house expressed all that was risky and sexy about Miami, and soon became famous from cameo appearances on Miami Vice as backdrop for supermodels and cocaine cowboys. Like so much else in Miami, this was a calculated deception. The house was originally designed for the architect’s parents, who were not drug lords at all but hard-working physicians.

Porch on the Brillhart House in Miami. Claudia Uribe

Miami’s most recent wave of development has seen the rise of a generic modernism, sleek forms in pale stucco and glass that resemble a computer rendering even after they’ve been built. While they might work fine for all-night parties and Kardashian-type photo ops, these places seem completely neutral and interchangeable, lacking much in the way of narrative and/or imagination.

The small, but well-tempered house that Jacob and Melissa Brillhart recently designed for themselves cuts a very different profile. It has already made an impression well beyond its diminutive size and cost, won awards, been well-publicized, and can be considered Miami’s “House of the Year,” perhaps even “House of the Decade,” as it reflects a refreshing new trend on the domestic frontier and goes against the city’s current building practices, an alternative to the multimillion-dollar condos and bling housing that Miami has become associated with. It is compact, modest, beautifully designed, well-grounded to its site, in tune with nature, and self-built, at least in part.

The clean architectural lines are accented with bright touches: cheery porch seating; an entry table; work by architect Jacob Brillhart’s artist sister Jenny, below, and lounges designed by Jacob. CHARLES TRAINOR JR MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The couple are principals of the five-member Brillhart Architecture firm. Jacob, who studied at Columbia University, also teaches at the University of Miami, where Melissa received her architecture degree. Their surname will be familiar to art connoisseurs: His sister is Miami artist Jenny Brillhart.

“People expect whiteness and stucco here,” says Jacob, standing on the front steps of the one-story house. “There’s not one bit of white. There’s no stucco, no plaster. It’s all steel, glass and wood.” The louvered shutters that hang across the 50-foot-wide façade evoke a moody, more-textured kind of scenario that’s less Lapidus, more Bogart-Bacall in Key Largo. It is further enhanced by lush tropical foliage that grows around the periphery of the site, making it seem romantic and settled — Henri Rousseau with a hint of Jurassic Park — while shielding the house from neighboring properties with native hardwoods, oaks, black olive trees, climbing fig trees, coconut palms and dense clusters of Simpson’s stopper.

“It’s like we’re living in the middle of a jungle,” says Melissa, co-architect and co-homeowner, who with her partner/husband, spent four years stalking the property on North River Drive that was first spotted when they took an exploratory drive along the river in the Fall of 2007. The 18,335-square-foot lot wasn’t for sale at the time, but the Brillharts practiced patience and finally were able to buy it in July 2011 for $165,000.

They had been looking for a site that had mature trees on it, and the Spring Garden neighborhood was ideal. The second-oldest platted neighborhood in Miami, it’s a peninsular area that borders the Miami River on one side and the Seybold Canal on the other, with the Dolphin Expressway passing just to the north. Less than a mile from downtown Miami, Spring Garden feels surprisingly isolated — even bucolic — with its shaded lawns and sprawling canopies of ancient oak trees. “There are only three roads in and three roads out,” says Jacob. Motorists on the elevated expressway whizz past at 65 miles an hour, oblivious to the fact that a historic enclave lurks beneath the overpass.

The industrialist John Seybold developed the area in 1919 and built himself a mock Moorish temple on Northwest 11th Street. Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista kept a getaway house there in the 1950s, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the venerable author and environmentalist, lived down the block.

Architects Melissa and Jacob Brillhart. Charles Trainor Jr.

From the start, the Brillharts knew they wanted a modernist glass house — what they called a “floating refuge” — partially in homage to the flat-roofed pavilions of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, but equally inspired by the Florida beach houses of Paul Rudolph, especially his tiny Cocoon House in Sarasota and the Walker Guest House in Sanibel — both for practical as well as aesthetic reasons. “Rudolph somehow figured out how to make those little houses livable in a subtropical climate, before air conditioning,” says Jacob, who also acknowledges the influence of more-traditional methodologies.

The floor plan is basically a reinterpretation of the vernacular dogtrot of the old south in which two cabins were attached by a covered porch. “We wanted an open breezeway through the middle of the house, but couldn’t afford to lose that much space,” Jacob explains. Instead, the central hall serves as a kind of enclosed breezeway with sleeping on one side, living on the other, kitchen in the middle, and bathrooms nested between the bedrooms. There are two sliding-glass panels on the front and back of the house; when they are open it creates natural, cross-draft ventilation. The Brillharts installed a small AC unit, but hardly ever turn it on during the winter months. (Their monthly electricity bill is about $75.)

The narrow, 66-foot-wide lot runs south to north, and the central positioning and shape of the house was largely determined by required setbacks from the east and west boundaries. While on approach, the 1,500-square-foot structure looks like a long and narrow pavilion, although it is essentially square in plan: 50 feet wide and a few feet under 50 in depth. Covered porches at the front and back create an additional 800 square feet of living space.

The main floor is elevated five feet off the ground on concrete stem walls, designed to create a hovering “floating refuge” effect; it is also a response to the threat of a rising sea level. (The Miami River runs only about 350 feet from the Brillharts’ front door.)

A framework of 50-foot-long steel I-beams lies atop the concrete foundation walls and supports the upper part of the house, which is essentially a combination of tempered glass and wood.

Exterior steps and sidewalls are made from Ipe, a Brazilian hardwood. Interior floors are made from white oak. The shutters that shield the front porch are made from Western Red Cedar, providing privacy while giving the house a woody warmth and sense of movement. (The shutters can be opened or closed in a variety of configurations.) On the inside, the louvered slats block out the heat of the sun and create a mesh of crisscrossing shadows that shift throughout the day, depending on the angle of the sun.

When fully open, the house becomes Adam and Eve’s hut in the Garden of Eden, fully transparent on both its north and south elevations, inviting the lushly planted grounds to come inside. “In a sense, the landscape acts as the walls of the house,” says Jacob.

The open-plan interior is furnished with simple pieces — a glass coffee table, a leather couch, two Barcelona chairs, a tulip table by Eero Saarinen, and cabinetry custom-made by Jacob’s father, David Brillhart, and trucked to Miami from his barn in New Hampshire.

The couple did everything possible to keep their costs low. They weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, and fabricated most of the kitchen shelving and louvered doors themselves. They also did all of the painting. Afterward, they vowed to never touch a paintbrush again.

By using standard lengths of steel for the superstructure, they shortened the time of construction, simplified assembly and reduced waste. “We couldn’t afford a second floor, so we had to make do,” says Melissa. Structural spans were limited to less than 20 feet so that standard lengths of lumber could be used to frame out the house. Off-the-rack panels of 9/16-inch-thick thermal glass (measuring 9 feet high by 18.5 feet wide) were employed for the floor-to-ceiling windows. In many ways, the set proportions of these prefabricated elements — structural I-beams, wooden joists, sliding-glass doors and windows — determined the final dimensions of the house.

“We’re essentially trying to create a new architecture for the tropics,” say the Brillharts.

Perhaps their house will become a new paradigm — the next Pink House – for a new kind of awareness: a Miami that is in tune with both nature and the economic realities of our time.