Downtown Miami

How do you hide a 17-story garage? Here’s how one developer would do it.

A rendering of the 17-story parking garage at the X Miami apartment tower covered with proposed photo collages by Belgian artist Sammy Slabbinck.
A rendering of the 17-story parking garage at the X Miami apartment tower covered with proposed photo collages by Belgian artist Sammy Slabbinck. Property Markets Group

How do you camouflage a 17-story parking garage? With art, of course. Really big, eye-grabbing art.

That's what the developer of the former Vice Miami apartment tower, now renamed X Miami, proposes to do downtown just off Biscayne Boulevard.

Property Markets Group wants to cover three sides of the garage, which stands astride the 31-story residential tower, with surreal photo-collages by a respected Belgian artist, Sammy Slabbinck. These are not the advertising “murals” that hang on other buildings in and around downtown Miami, but genuine works of art featuring slices of photographs that Slabbinck recombines, toying with proportions and perspective to make the resulting images appear otherwordly. They contain no words or logos.

The PMG proposal this week became the first public art project on a private building to be reviewed by the city of Miami's new arts in public places board, which recommended that planning director Francisco Garcia approve it.

It was in effect a dry run, if not exactly a preview, for a proposed new city program that would require private developers to fund public art. The city earlier this year launched a program that taps into public projects to finance public art; a controversial expansion that would do the same for private development has not yet been enacted. A final vote on that is set for Nov. 16.

But Garcia wanted the newly constituted board, stocked with art connoisseurs, to review the pieces selected by PMG now. They liked two. But, following an analysis by the planning staff, they asked whether a third, black-and-white image, of a giant woman sitting over a waterfall that appears to spring from under her, could be replaced with another work by the same artist that better reflects Miami in some way. The developers acceded.

Brian Koles, PMG’s director of brand and tenant experience, said draping the garage in art seemed the best way of “diminishing the size of the canvas” presented by the unusually tall and blank-faced structure, which is under construction.

“When we were thinking about what to do about this garage, we felt a big responsibility,” Koles said. “It’s a very large canvas in the middle of downtown. What could we do that is thought-provoking and isn’t obtrusive or isn’t done by an oversaturated artist?”

The developers’ approach was unusual: They didn’t hire an art consultant or run a competition. They looked through Google and Pinterest images, until they stumbled across Slabbinck’s work, which seemed to fit the bill, and approached him directly in Belgium.

Slabbinck, it turns out, though not a big name is not exactly an unknown. He has exhibited in Belgium, London and Chicago and designed the album cover for the late, great songwriter Leonard Cohen’s last recording. In 2005, the New Yorker magazine wrote that “Slabbinck’s skillful manipulations of perspective and proportion, and juxtapositions of color and black and white, turn banal source material into scenes of whimsical confusion.”

PMG selected a few of Slabbinck’s images, including some that Koles described as having “a focus on female empowerment in a way that is timeless and visually interesting,” then figured out how to blow the images up to 17 stories and print them on a lasting vinyl material.

One shows a woman, seemingly unclothed, against a background of blue sky and fluffy white clouds that serve as surrealistic pillows and also provide strategic covering. Another features the colossal head and shoulder of a woman resting atop a snowy mountain range as the dark figure of a man walks toward her on what seems to be icy ground.

“It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste,” Koles conceded. “But we were willing to make some fairly bold creative decisions without being inappropriate for public display.”

The images would be changed every five years.

The 464-unit tower, now nearing completion, is part of PMG’s X portfolio of small, “attainably” priced rental apartment buildings with shared amenities that are geared to what Koles called “modern professionals.” It’s scheduled to open next summer at 243 NE Third St. Rents start at $1,600 for a 500-square-foot “junior” one-bedroom.

Next year, PMG plans to unveil a companion project, a luxury condo tower of around 1,000 feet in height that would sit directly on Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast Third Street. When that building is constructed, it would block the garage’s eastern wall, but art would remain on the south and west garage facades, Koles said.

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