Proposed museum building splashy even for Miami

The exterior of the nearly windowless building will be a new type of concrete embedded with glass fiber optics that renders it translucent. At night, the building should glow as light from the interior filters out through the concrete.
The exterior of the nearly windowless building will be a new type of concrete embedded with glass fiber optics that renders it translucent. At night, the building should glow as light from the interior filters out through the concrete. Arquitectonica

A celebrated, wealthy investment manager wants to erect a strikingly unconventional building — shaped like an anvil, raised on a platform and encased in translucent concrete — on Biscayne Boulevard to house his offices and a pair of monumental works by two art-world legends.

The proposed building, designed by Miami’s Arquitectonica, would be the latest — and surely the splashiest — in a series of private museums established by art collectors in Miami to show their holdings to the public.

But the nearly windowless structure, plans for which were recently submitted to the city, have been met with initial consternation by zoning reviewers. City planners say they’re having trouble at first blush reconciling it with the Miami 21 zoning code, which does not anticipate a building like it, though they say it could pass muster with variances and modifications. One concern: whether the sculptural monolith might be too “offputting’’ a presence on the city’s resurgent main drag.

Like some ancient ark for art, the building’s shape and dimensions were precisely tailored to display two highly engineered works — a tall conical installation by light artist James Turrell that was a blockbuster when exhibited last year at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and an undulating, 200-foot-long steel piece by sculptor Richard Serra last shown in Qatar.

Both works were acquired for the site, a vacant block at Biscayne and Northeast 26th Street in the Edgewater neighborhood, by Bruce Berkowitz, founder of Miami-based Fairholme Capital Management. Berkowitz, dubbed “the megamind of Miami” by Fortune magazine for his market-beating proficiency at contrarian investing, has been quietly assembling land since last year to build a new headquarters for his company and foundation that would also incorporate a public showcase for art.

Berkowitz said he chose Edgewater because of the National YoungArts Foundation’s move in 2012 into the historically and architecturally iconic former Bacardi headquarters five blocks to the south on Biscayne Boulevard. He had been contemplating the idea of a building that could combine his business and art interests in one location when he found out “by accident” that the Turrell and Serra works were available, Berkowitz said.

“We wanted to create a unique space that combined both work and play — business and arts and education,” Berkowitz said. “We thought about the idea of how to mix that all together, and there was an opportunity to purchase the works, and then we started to think about the building in relationship to the works.”

Paul Lehr, president and CEO of YoungArts, said he met with members of Fairholme’s team as they were searching for a site and has been filled in on the plans for the building. The YoungArts campus will include a Frank Gehry-designed performing arts center.

“I think it’s thrilling. It’s great for the neighborhood to have that kind of art right down the street,” Lehr said. “It’s always wonderful to have new development around, but when you’ve got pieces of artwork like this building is going to have, it really enhances the neighborhood.”

The Fairholme building’s unusual design and prominent location, though, seem sure to spur a lively public debate. When renderings were posted on the exMiami.com website recently, one commenter called it “awful” and another compared it to the Jawa Sandcrawler in Star Wars. But others embraced it just as forcefully: “YES YES YES! I love it!” went one fan. “Bravo!” went another.

Both Turrell and Serra have been closely involved in the building’s design, portions of which were drawn to their specifications, Berkowitz and Arquitectonica co-principal Bernardo Fort-Brescia said. Turrell has designed a second work for the site that would light up the exterior lip of the building platform at sidewalk level, Fort-Brescia said.

(Bruce Berkowitz is not to be confused with the unrelated real estate developer Jeff Berkowitz, for whom Arquitectonica has designed another unique structure, the SkyRise observation tower that would rise 1,000 feet behind Bayside Marketplace.)

The Fairholme building design began taking on its unorthodox form and materials because Berkowitz, who is known for going against the crowd in his investment strategy, didn’t want anything like “the typical Miami glass tower,” Fort-Brescia said.

They settled on a concrete exterior in part because Berkowitz likes the material, said Fort-Brescia and his architect son, Raymond Fort, who is in charge of the project for the firm. But they turned to a new type of concrete embedded with glass fiber optics that renders the material translucent and softens the building’s appearance. At night, they said, the building should glow as light from the interior filters out through the concrete.

Another reason for concrete: It best sets off Passage of Time, the work by Serra, who did not want it sitting against glass, Fort-Brescia said.

The building would rise from a platform elevated 111/2 over sidewalk level, in part because of federal flood requirements, Fort-Brescia said. A single level of parking would sit below the platform, fully underground, he said.

Though it would have just five floors — two for the public gallery, and three office levels above — the building would be 100 feet tall, or roughly 10 stories, to accommodate Turrell’s Aten Reign. Originally conceived for the contours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed spiral rotunda at the Guggenheim, the sculpture — with the widest part of the cone at the top — also inspired the Fairholme building’s shape, which gets wider as it rises, Fort-Brescia said.

Aten Reign’s series of concentric color-shifting light ovals requires natural light filtering from above. At New York’s Guggenheim, that light came through an “oculus,” or circular skylight. At the prism-like Fairholme building, an expansive skylight in the wide roof could catch sunlight and, with the use of shades, soften and guide it down through the Turrell sculpture and throughout the building’s atrium-like interior, Fort-Brescia said.

Turrell, who carefully positions his works’ displays, wants visitors to enter the light cone from below. At the Guggenheim, people lined up outside for hours to lie on the floor and gaze up into the ethereal light effects. At the Fairholme building, visitors would walk up a ramp and then down under the sculpture to fulfill Turrell’s vision, Fort-Brescia said. At the top of the sculpture would be a “sky room” in which viewers can look down through the sculpture, a feature the Guggenheim could not fit in.

“It will be incredible, mystical,” Fort-Brescia said. “This building perfects the sequence of arrival at the piece. It’s amazing that Miami’s getting the piece.”

When Aten Reign opened at the Guggenheim last year, The New York Times’ critic called the sculpture “ravishing” and described it as “an immense, elliptical, nearly hallucinatory play of light and color.”

“I couldn’t believe how people were waiting for hours in line to just lie down on the floor and look at this piece,” Berkowitz said. “It affects your mood and the way you look at things.”

The Serra sculpture, long twinned waves of Cor-Ten steel that oxidizes naturally to a rusty patina, would run along the building’s south side on 26th Street. It would be raised on a plaza above sidewalk level and sit behind a shallow reflecting pool so that visitors could walk through and around the piece, Fort-Brescia said.

The building’s main entrance would be tucked behind the Serra piece. Above it, one of the building’s few windows — a band of glass that stretches along the entire 260-foot length of the southern façade without a single mullion or column to interrupt it — is angled down precisely to allow a full view of the Serra sculpture on the plaza below it. The glazing would be super-clear, low-iron glass, Fort-Brescia said.

The platform is one of the elements troubling city planners, who are concerned it could isolate the building from streets and sidewalks they have been working to make pedestrian-friendly. But it is critical for display and protection of the Serra sculpture, restricting access and placing it beyond the reach of street vandals, Fort-Brescia said.

Fort-Brescia noted historic and architectural antecedents on the boulevard for putting a building on a raised platform, including the Bacardi complex, in which a tower and a boxy companion on a short pedestal behind it sit on a broad, raised plaza. Like the Fairholme design, the Bacardi buildings also blend sculpture and art with the architecture, he said.

But the Fairholme building design presents a quandary for the city’s reviewers, who must ensure it’s compatible with Miami 21, concedes city planning and zoning director Francisco Garcia. The code is designed to promote active, pedestrian-friendly sidewalk life by requiring that commercial and residential buildings have lots of glass and doorways at ground level along important streets like Biscayne Boulevard.

Reviewers initially balked, Garcia said, acknowledging that the code was written to foster “cohesive background buildings” and not “one-off’’ buildings like Fairholme’s. After meeting with Fort-Brescia, Garcia said he believes there might be ways to allow it, but the trick will be to do so “without a complete subversion of Miami 21.”

Garcia said he and his staff are taking a close look at the plans to determine what design changes or variances might be needed.

“It’s not your average, run-of-the-mill building,” Garcia said. “It’s certainly a building of a type that would be hard for any code to provide for. I would describe it to you as a work in progress.

“Does it have to do it like every other building? Not necessarily. But it should not be off-putting. It should engage the pedestrian realm in some meaningful way.”

One idea, he said, is to approach analysis of the building as a sculpture, and the platform below it as the plinth or base on which it’s displayed.

“When you get down to the details and the fine-grain design approach, there are a number of possibilities that in the end could result in a truly, truly remarkable building,” Garcia said. “I really think it could be a good addition to the Biscayne Boulevard menagerie.”

One problem, Fort-Brescia said, is that the code contains restrictions to regulate ordinary commercial or residential buildings, like sharply limiting floor heights, so that they follow a consistent urban form. “But everything’s not a condo,” he said.

Berkowitz said he is “just waiting” to hear back from the city. “There’s still a lot of ‘to be determined,’” he said. “It’s a very fluid situation.”

In the meantime, the Serra sculpture — fabricated in Germany, last exhibited in Qatar and then dismantled into eight giant sections — was shipped from Doha on a freighter to Jacksonville, where it will be stored until it’s ready for the trip south. Each section of the sculpture, whose total weight is reported to be 600,000 pounds, will be barged to Miami individually.

The Turrell is in storage in New Jersey.

If it all comes together, Berkowitz hopes to open in 2017.

Art world observers say it would be a welcome addition to the city’s roster of private museums, known in the art world as “the Miami model.”

Two, those of developer Martin Margulies and the Rubell family, consist of converted warehouses in Wynwood, not far from Berkowitz’s site. Art patron Ella Fontanals-Cisneros’ CIFO Art Space is also in a redesigned warehouse on the edge of downtown Miami. Another, belonging to Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, is a purpose-built, elegantly minimalist three-story building by architect John Marquette in the Design District.

“I don’t think that all art has to be in a museum setting,” said Dennis Scholl, vice president of arts for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and an art collector. “So the idea that Fairholme Capital would create a headquarters that has what really looks like world-class sculptures, and make that available to the public, is truly only an enhancing concept for Miami,” Scholl said.

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