The Miami Design District wants to get you off your phone and into a store. The people who run the booming mecca for high-end retail, and in particular the man who came up with the idea, Craig Robins, figure that the way to do that is through eye-catching architecture and tightly packed urbanism. At a time when you have to wonder what design is good for, Robins and his firm, Dacra, seem to have an answer: to get you to shop.
Robins has a history of inventing destinations out of architecture. Most notably, he was one of the first developers to see the potential of South Miami Beach’s Art Deco District. After nearly every small building along the beach had been renovated and the developers’ attention turned to the renovation of the bigger hotels—where now the Delano competes with the Setai and the W (though that one is a ground-up addition to the scene)—Robins jumped over to the mainland. At first, his idea was to create the kind of collection of purveyors of high-end couches and lighting fixtures that used to fill spaces like the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles and the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Soon, however, the Design District began to attract some of the most expensive fashion brands around. Restaurants and galleries followed, and Dacra hired the founders of New Urbanism, local firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, to master plan the area, which is just north of the I-195 highway that leads to Miami Beach and just a few blocks in from the bay, in the kind of walkable and homogenous environments those planners favor.
What has saved the Design District from being banal like so many similar projects that are popping all around the country—my go-to retail destination at home in Arizona is the Scottsdale Quarter, a mall masquerading as a grid of palm-lined streets—is eye-catching architecture. Robins either hired or persuaded stores to hire the likes of Aranda/Lasch (Tom Ford), Javier Carvajal (Loewe), and Johanna Grawunder (Fendi) to create snazzy façades. Midblock walkways became sites for installations such as a Buckminster Fuller dome and experiments by artists and architects. When I was there recently, Charlap Hyman & Herrero had festooned trees with tinsel and Daniel Toole had built elongated concrete arches in alleyways.
The focal point for the Design District has become a new retail building designed by the L.A. firm Johnston Marklee. It presents a polished steel grid to the north-south “paseo” (pedestrian walkway). The top row is empty, framing views of the sky that act as a counterpoint to the dizzying array of products you can see through the other windows. Paris-based Tolila + Gilliland designed a facing structure covered in different colors and patterns of tiles.
The easy criticism is that this is all façadism, but that seems to be the point. The elaborate front that Madrid's Aranguren + Gallegos designed for the new Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami houses a white-box interior almost indistinguishable from that of the de la Cruz Collection next door. These spaces, in turn, house collections of contemporary art that would be the envy of many museums. Even the parking garages, otherwise completely standard in their layout and construction, have elaborate scrims—the latest of which was designed by German architect Jürgen Mayer H.
You can, of course, have similar criticisms of the clothes and objects for sale in the Design District. It is not the intrinsic craft or innovation of the objects (though I am sure some of their designers would disagree) that makes them such objects of desire, but their appearance. In the case of the architecture, that means playing with the basic elements of construction, blowing those up in scale, emphasizing and twisting their geometry, and elongating their proportions. There is little in the way of expensive building materials or structural derring-do, but there is a lot of pattern and image to dazzle the eye.
So how long will this last? The Design District has no housing or even hotels as part of its current stock, and only one largish office building. For all of its focus on pedestrian life, it is dependent on people driving to it, and traffic at the entrances is often bad enough to discourage visitors. What will happen when shoppers get the big dazzle, rub their eyes, and move on? I see little that will keep them coming back, other than the continual renovation and rebuilding of façades.
Then again, the Design District happened very fast—most of the notable structures only date to the last three to four years—and maybe the model here is this: Get in, make your money, and get out fast. If that’s the case, I wonder, how could we then use the boxes hiding behind those façades? Now there is a design challenge for the era after the inevitable next slump.
Learn more about the Miami Design District here.