The Pérez Art Museum Miami is a cluster more than a building. It is an agglomeration rather than an ordered object, a node in sprawl rather than a center in the center, and labyrinth rather than a ritual march through art history. It is not always beautiful or successful, but it makes a significant contribution to our perception of what an art museum can be.

The Miami Art Museum decided ten years ago to abandon its stripped-down neo-classical, Philip Johnson-designed home in downtown for something more up-to-date and commodious, designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. Culture was not really located in the core anyhow, and a new cluster, including a Cesar Pelli-designed performing arts center and a waterfront park, was planned for the place where the southernmost causeway connection to Miami Beach touches down. By now, the Pérez (named for its largest donor) is also adjacent to the Wynwood Arts District and a stop on the way to the Design District, which is becoming a de facto upscale mall. A Zaha Hadid-designed condo tower will shortly face the museum on the inland side. Miami is densifying as it is sprawling, and the Pérez is part of the mangrove's sprouting moments of urban intensity.

Marooned—at least for now—at the edge of an unfinished park and next to the elevated causeway, the Pérez is a petrified grove itself. It hides its big culture box nature in a forest of concrete columns holding up a lattice roof under which a collection of smaller boxes shelter. This is above all else a skeleton scaling down the adjacent high-rises, highway, and port structures towards a place where art can berth.

Almost everything about the building is a perversion of what you expect from a contemporary art museum. The main entrance is on the side, where the veranda is the smallest; the most monumental side, complete with broad steps you would expect to lead up to the temple front, faces the bay to the right of that entry and leads only to the cafe. The parking garage is visible underneath open concrete steps as you move towards the entrance. There a vestibule stretches out the length of the building, rather than leading you in. A narrow passage releases you from there onto the bottom of what is both the main auditorium and the grand stair to the piano nobile where you find the galleries (it is hard not to think about Rem Koolhaas’ two-decades-old Kunsthal at this point). There you once again find a narrow gallery with views over the bay that squeezes you either way into what turns out to be a rambling sequence of loft-like galleries. 

These huge spaces are scaled for the contemporary art on which the Pérez now focuses (and which seems to be Miami’s thing these days) and offer many views out to the city and water. They are proportioned in a manner more reminiscent of a Chelsea art gallery than traditional museum spaces. I found them a bit relentless, especially because of the strips of fluorescent tubes Herzog & de Meuron for some reason insist on using in all their museum spaces. What saves the day is a series of nooks, small galleries, and just window seats where the scale drops down and you can stop and actually enjoy the views.

There is no big climax to your ramble, only a descent back through the auditorium and past the gift shop (not all clichés have disappeared) out into Miami’s sprawl. The Pérez does not ennoble, but house. It is big and even grand, but in a manner that keeps undercutting your expectation of what a monument should be. Its openness is only possible because of its location and climate, but it points the way to the making of a mode of cultural clusters that seduce us into art and architecture’s alternate realities rather than imposing that order on us. It is a fecund mess of masterful moves hiding in the ruins of a temple of culture.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.