When architect Hilario Candela was tasked with designing a boat racing stadium on a small key just off the coast of Miami in 1962, there was one overarching requirement from the city: make it cheap. Really cheap. Miami’s Department of Public Works—an entity known for erecting practical infrastructure like highway overpasses—wasn’t interested in producing a great work of architecture. They wanted a 6,600-seat grandstand and they wanted it to cost less than $1 million (roughly $7.7 million today).
Candela, then a 27-year-old architect at the Miami firm of Pancoast, Ferendino, Skeels and Burnham, had other ideas. “I thought we could create an outstanding piece of architecture,” he says. “It would be a sculptural piece.” What he came up with was a singular athletic arena. Part of the grandstand would rest on land; part of it would float over the waters of a broad U-shaped basin dredged to accommodate boat races. The viewing stands would be sheltered by a soaring concrete canopy that resembled a crinkled piece of origami. And it would be an engineering marvel: The canopy would become the world’s longest span of cantilevered concrete.
But, the city, concerned about money, was not enthralled by the plan. “There was a moment where they almost wanted to stop it,” recalls Candela. “It came to the point where I said that if we didn’t meet the budget, we’d design it for free.” The city accepted the deal and the Miami Marine Stadium was built as Candela designed it—“the finest speedboat-racing facilities in the world,” as The New York Times described it in 1965. Better yet, the project came in under budget. The architect was paid for his work, and the City of Miami ended up with a singular Modernist icon.
The Miami Marine Stadium is now the subject of an exhibition at the Coral Gables Museum in Coral Gables, Fla. "Concrete Paradise: The Miami Marine Stadium” will provide a detailed overview of the structure’s history, its future, and its cultural impact. In addition to boat-racing, the stadium served as a site for concerts by the likes of Fela Kuti, The Who and Jimmy Buffett. In 1967, it served as backdrop to the Elvis Presley flick Clambake (watch the trailer here). Five years later, it was the site of the Republican youth rally where Sammy Davis Jr. famously (and controversially) hugged Richard Nixon. “Religious services and beauty pageants were held at the stadium,” says Rosa Lowinger, the exhibition’s curator. “Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti staged a poetry reading there. It was really the heart of Miami.”
The exhibition comes at a critical time for the stadium. Though it served as an important public event space for almost three decades, city mismanagement made the property a money-losing proposition over the long haul. When Hurricane Andrew plowed into South Florida in 1992, city officials took the opportunity to shutter the stadium. There it has sat ever since, accumulating graffiti and serving as an illicit amusement park for skateboarding teens. On more than one occasion, there has been talk of razing it, with real estate developers hungrily eyeing the site for resorts and marinas.
The stadium, however, has again managed to make an end run around the worst instincts of the city’s bureaucrats. Don Worth is a preservationist who co-founded the Friends of the Miami Marine Stadium, a not-for-profit group that banded together five years ago to save the building from the wrecking ball. Despite more than two decades of neglect, engineering studies show that the stadium remains structurally sound—and as a result, he says, it is worth rehabilitating. “This building was designed by the Miami experience,” he says. “You look down and you see water. Then you look up and see the great origami roof. Look out to the horizon and you see mangroves, and to the left, the Miami skyline in the distance. Any time I take somebody there, they are just stunned.”
The group, with the support of celebs such as Gloria Estefan and Jimmy Buffett, has already achieved a string of successes. In the fall of 2008, they successfully lobbied the city to declare the stadium a historic site. In 2009, their cause drew international attention when both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the World Monuments Fund placed the building on their watch lists of endangered cultural heritage. That same year, newly-elected Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado threw his weight behind the idea of resurrecting the stadium.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is now at work on a proposal to get the stadium included on the National Register of Historic Places. "Modern architecture has a smaller following and support base," says Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO of the National Trust. "We hear from people who say things like, 'Is it old enough to be really historic?' I feel like we need to change that attitude."
Beyond the historical angle, both the building and its designer have a compelling architectural pedigree, one that "Concrete Paradise" explores at length. Candela, who was born and raised in Cuba, studied architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where visiting critics included figures such as Spanish architect Eduardo Torroja, a pioneer in the design of concrete-shell buildings. (Candela’s stadium in Miami was inspired, in part, by Torroja’s concrete grandstand for the Zarzuela Hippodrome in Madrid, with its cantilevered, undulating concrete canopy.) “People like Torroja were people who were searching for solutions,” says Candela. “But at the same time, they had a poetic approach to design. That made a tremendous impact on me.”
Candela also worked with other important architectural innovators early on. During college, he interned with Max Borges Jr. in Cuba. Borges was renowned in Latin American architectural circles for his design of the legendary Tropicana night club in Havana, a series of thin concrete arches linked by slivers of glass. Fresh out of college, Candela was employed at the largest architectural office in Cuba: Sáenz, Cancio, Martín, Álvarez y Gutiérrez (SACMAG). In the late 1950s, the firm served as construction architects on a building that Mies Van Der Rohe designed for the Bacardi rum company in Santiago de Cuba. “We had the complete set of Mies’s drawings for Bacardi in the office,” recalls Candela. “That’s the kind of place it was. We would sit around having discussions about Mies Van Der Rohe’s drawings.”
Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution put an end to the Bacardi project, which never got beyond the design phase. And in 1960, Candela fled Cuba for the United States. To his adopted home, he brought a passion for working in concrete. Lowinger, the exhibition’s curator, is an architectural conservator who has worked on various historic Modernist structures, including John Lautner’s Chemosphere house in Los Angeles. She is also the author of Tropicana Nights, a history of the famous club. “Candela worked with and was interested in guys working with thin-shell concrete—these bad-ass engineers,” she explains. “They were trying to make concrete thinner and thinner and thinner, like what Oscar Niemeyer was doing in Brazil.”
These techniques are reflected in Candela’s Miami Marine Stadium. Crafted from poured-in-place concrete, the billowing hyperbolic paraboloids that comprise the roof are just six inches thick at their thinnest points above the water. The building is elegant, but aggressive—its slanted profile has been compared to the jaws of an alligator, but it could just as easily be a retro-futuristic vessel hurtling through oceans. “Boat-racing is such a high-adrenaline sport,” Lowinger says. “The boats hulls are so thin, so vulnerable. The surface that touches the water is the size of a handkerchief. This building was designed for that. It’s high-speed, high-testosterone architecture.”
Now the focus is on the future of the building. As “Concrete Paradise” opens at the Coral Gables Museum, the Friends of the Miami Marine Stadium—of which Candela is a member—is taking its first steps toward fundraising the $40 million necessary to renovate and help maintain the building. The group is also in talks with private operators about events. It is also in the process of developing a site-plan that would include park areas and a maritime center that could remain open to the public on non-event days. “This is not a white elephant,” Worth says. “The key is to get enough good paying events to drive the bus. But, once that’s achieved, we want to look at this as a community asset.”
Candela says that for years he has been "extremeley upset" about the city’s neglect of the stadium. But the future gives him hope. "We’ve saved the stadium," he says with relief. "Now it’s a question of bringing it back."