Grove at Grand Bay condominiums in Coconut Grove
courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group Grove at Grand Bay condominiums in Coconut Grove

The residential real estate marking is booming. In just about every community, you can see prices and the housing going up. A recent trip to Miami made the scale of this development clear to me and raised the question: What will this newly huge residential landscape look like?

It will be tall, big, and modern, is the short answer. The trend of residential high-rises is to go ever higher and, when that is not possible, bigger. The same is true for single-family homes, which sprawl over multiple lots and fill out every inch of those sites with what are generally white plains, horizontal roofs, and large windows. We seem to have finally left the succession of historical revivals behind us, whether because all that detailing is too expensive or because a French château does look out of place on the suburban cul-de-sac or on the beach.

We should be concentrating on reusing and re-imagining what we have already built to make such existing structures more equitable, sustainable, and beautiful.

Most of the hundreds of towers rising all over Miami are generic in their design. While that at least promises that some of the mistakes that led to the recent condo collapse in Surfside might be avoided, as building systems and codes are much more standardized, it also means that the blandness of what is going up is overwhelming.

There are, of course, standouts. The most notable of these in Miami is Zaha Hadid’s One Thousand Museum, whose exo-structure snakes across its almost 60-story façade, unfolding balconies as it bends inward and then encompassing larger units as it rises. You only wish that the architects had been able to persuade the developer to give the tower an actual top and a more fluid base, rather than being stuck strutting their parametric stuff in the confines of what is, in essence, an elongated box.

The Rock House project in Coconut Grove (left) and the planted roof of the Janoura Residence in Miami Beach by Strang Architects
Claudio Manzoni (left) and Robin Hill (right); courtesy Strang Architects The Rock House project in Coconut Grove (left) and the planted roof of the Janoura Residence in Miami Beach by Strang Architects

More expressive are the twin 17-story condominium towers designed by Bjarke Ingels Group for Coconut Grove. They are good examples of the “twisties” the firm is building worldwide, from Vancouver to New York to Quito, Ecuador. In this case, they are particularly graceful because they are not too tall, are paired in a dance of curves, and appear as no more than white planes sandwiched between expanses of glass. The one unfortunate aspect of the design is the presence of green dividers between the balconies that belong to different owners, which slice the smoothness of the stack into a staccato rhythm that is jarring to the eye, though no doubt pleasing to the owners in their quest for privacy.

Can that care and the clear beauty of these buildings justify using natural resources for their construction and inhabitation?

At the single-family scale, the recent mandate to build above the flood plain has created the strange phenomenon of the “Florida First Floor”—a kind of piano nobile lifted above where the water could reach in the foreseeable future, leaving cars and utility areas at the mercy of the sea or whatever bubbles up through the porous ground, while the single floor above that, restricted in height, contains all the living spaces. This makes what were already sprawling compounds even larger. Skillful architects such as Max Strang, AIA, whose work I was visiting while I was there, break the resulting hulks up with planes of wood, extended eaves, and colonnades or sunscreens, but many of these structures still have the size of what we might think of as small apartment complexes.

The sheer amount of such buildings going up, as well as their scale, is daunting. Driving through Miami, I saw a construction crew on what seemed like every corner, and the main limit on further building is the availability of such workers to make the clients’ dreams a reality.

You can certainly make an argument that the densification of the downtown and some other areas well-served by transport and other services makes sense. As to the houses, at least the new ones stand a better chance to survive the inevitable. They are also not being built on Miami’s outskirts, where acres of farmland and swamp are disappearing at a rate rivaling the evanescence of the Sonoran Desert around what is now one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, Phoenix.

Elevated house in the Florida Keys by Strang Architects
courtesy Max Strang Elevated house in the Florida Keys by Strang Architects

The buildings are also more efficient because they must be built to code, and most of Strang’s houses have features such as green roofs and other ways to lessen their carbon footprint. Can that care and the clear beauty of these buildings justify using natural resources for their construction and inhabitation? Strang himself has his doubts, pointing out that, no matter what tricks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comes up with, most of Florida will disappear, before too long, back into sea and swamp, leaving only a central ridge (which happens to be the site of his hometown, Winter Haven) as habitable. Strang has proposed large islands and other utopian solutions as he continues to build his modernist stilt houses.

It is good, in other words, that we are creating more residential than office or shopping structures, and that we are building them in an environmentally sound manner. It is also good to get past the idea that they must look like what they are not. It is not so good that, no matter how skillfully we build such structures, they are bulwarks against the rising tides of global climate change that, in their very construction, contribute to the disasters already invading our seemingly safe homes. Instead, we should be concentrating on reusing and re-imagining what we have already built to make such existing structures more equitable, sustainable, and beautiful.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.