I CAN’T BREATHE

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Mystery Murmuration

 December 1, 2014, Art Basel Miami: It starts quietly enough with a murmuration of starlings, a blob-like cluster of birds flying in perfect formation while re-morphing, changing shape, moving up and down the horizon, but retaining their amorphous sense of unity throughout the aerial dance. I am on 79th Street, stuck in traffic, trying to reach the first of many events, when just as suddenly the birds vanish into the gold-anodized filigree of the once dreaded INS Building on Biscayne Boulevard, formerly the Gulf American Building, but now abandoned. The moment of unexpected natural beauty will resonate throughout the week as a revelatory message of sorts. I only have to figure out what it means.

The Art Basel week begins at 4PM with a tour of the newly refurbished and expanded Design District with developer Craig Robins and Mathieu Le Bozec of L Real Estate (an LVMH subsidiary). With all the $-millions flowing in from LVMH and its subsidiary L Real Estate, Robins has managed to skip several stages of gentrification and go directly from scrappy mixed-income neighborhood (in the shadow of the Interstate 195 overpass) to platinum luxury utopia, without many of the intermediary steps one normally expects in such urban transitions. More than a hundred luxury brands are either already open or will soon be open including Bulgari, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Pucci, Versace, Dior, Givenchy, Dolce & Gabbana, Hermes, Tom Ford, etc. One looks for the grand architectural gesture and finds instead a high-end shopping mall, a protected urban space fortified with luxury brand logos and a variety of surface treatments. Much of the effect is just that, special effects, well-placed claddings, wrappings and graftings, a kind of architectonic nipping and tucking that employs reflective glass, mottled surfaces and theatrical lighting to achieve the desired suspension of disbelief. The question remains, will it be an effective enough illusion to lure zillionaire shoppers from the lush comforts of Bal Harbour Shops and the other high-end venues of South Florida? Without them, the heady rise of the Design District may turn into an equally precipitous decline.

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The new Palm Court creates a conspicuously fortified enclosure to protect Manolo Blahnik-wearing shoppers from accidentally bumping into urine-scented street folk, but the plaza is semi-public, open on the north and west to pedestrian traffic, and soon there will be an outdoor cafe on the second level and a handsome cast-concrete public events space designed by Aranda/Lasch to help lure non-shoppers deeper into the complex.

Some of the unfinished buildings have been draped with translucent mesh veils that give them a mysterious, burka-like presence. There’s also an element of folding and pleating going on in some of the facades. The Aranda/Lasch building is clad in cast concrete slabs with patterned imprints that mimic a kind of embroidery. The two-story arcade of narrow glass fins by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto reads as a lattice of chilly blue icicles. It may help to break the ferocity of the Miami sun while framing the shops along the southern side of the Palm Court, but its engineering seems fussy and needlessly overwrought.

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Glass Arcade by Sou Fujimoto

The District is desperately in need of more parking, as is all of Miami, and the origami-like folds of Leong Leong’s multi-level garage on North Miami Avenue (still unfinished and a block to the west of the Palm Court,) are best seen from the elevated perspective of Interstate-195 as blue-and-white metallic membranes appear to crinkle from side to side as one drives by at 70 MPH. People have been talking more about the gridlock traffic than art or design this week, so it’s no surprise that parking takes on an elevated status in this auto-centric city that has such a long history of inadequate public transportation. Leong Leong’s structure joins a roster of high-design parking structures by the likes of Herzog & De Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Enrique Norten.

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The Design District’s star attraction, however, is Bucky Fuller Fly’s Eye dome that dropped like an alien intruder into the very heart of the complex. It’s a digitally re-engineered version of the original 24-foot-diameter Fly’s Eye that was fabricated in 1979 by John Warren and is now installed on the western deck of the Perez Art Museum, two miles to the south. The new version was built by Dan Reiser to meet local codes, and has already become the symbolic centerpiece of the entire Design District, upstaging all of the architecture that surrounds it and, like Superman’s magic crystal, pulling together the disparate parts of the neighborhood through some alembic kind of magnification and transmutation that only Bucky Fuller would have understood.

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Bird’s Eye View of Fly’s Eye Dome, Design District

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Edition Hotel

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Arrive late at opening reception for the EDITION (née Seville Hotel), pushing past tall thin models in black lycra mesh who stand guard like “the Hounds of Hell”, (as one rumpled writer suggests), transparent clipboards as their shields. The refurbished hybrid (at 2901 Collins Avenue) was concocted by Ian Schrager in tandem with Arne Sorenen of the Marriot. John Pawson is project architect and interiors are by Yabu Pushelberg with black walnut veneers and sandy shades of beige with creamy pale undertones. We, the rather docile and anemic-looking design press, sit in the “Matador Room” beneath a 20-foot-diamter chandelier, a giant daisy cutter, from the 1950s and listen to Shrager and Sorenen compliment one another and explain how they had created the highest-end luxury boutique hotel on Miami Beach, comparing their efforts most humbly to the corporate branding of ***EDITON - 1653Apple. The original Seville (1955) was designed by Melvin Grossman, protégé of Morris Lapidus and the new owners want to keep its rat-pack elegance in tact of the original while smoothing and slimming it down to suit a sleeker, more pampered clientele. (Basic room rates start at about $1,000 a night.) The Edition/Seville holds its own against the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc just up Collins and only lacks the kind of money-shot moment that Lapidus was so good at choreographing, but Grossman outdid his mentor when it came to the outdoor circular bar and multi-level diving platform, both of which have been lovingly restored along with the oversized chandeliers and gold mosaic columns in the lobby.

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“Untitled” pavilion on beach

Drink far too much on first evening: brandy concoction then vodka with pomegranate at Gucci preview (“Smell the Magic”); gin and tonics at “Untitled” Vernissage on beach at 12th Street; several beers and single malts at “Intimate Dinner” for more than 350 at Morimoto Restaurant to honor ubiquitous artist Marina Abromovic who can’t stop hugging and kissing everyone and posing for endless selfies with photographer Todd Eberle; a few nightcaps at another gala, my head pounding all night and wake up feeling like an Art Fair whore.

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Jonathan Muecke’s circular pavilion

 

Design Miami opens for previews on Tuesday and at last acknowledges the environment in three curated shows within the main exhibition pavilion. For Swarovski, Jeanne Gang, luminous Chicago architect, offers “Thinning Ice”, an ingenious interpretation of melting polar ice caps with white enameled icebergs rising from a reflective floor laced with rivers of melted ice (tiny Swarovski crystals) flowing through narrow fiber-optic streams. The tabletop masses are punctured by ravines and thaw holes that contain enchanting deposits of crystals which appear to glow with mysterious emanations while the walls support images of melting glaciers by James Balog.

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“Thinning Ice”, Jeanne Gang, Design Miami

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“Ephemera”

Perrier-Jouët’s “Ephemera” by Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler is a mechanical ornamental garden that rises and falls in response to human movements around a large oak table, a sweetly melancholic reminder of man’s love-hate codependency with Nature. Olson Kundig Architects deliver the finest gesture of the show with a lounge installation called “38 Beams”, bringing a muscular Northwestern vibe to Miami’s often ephemeral sub-tropical environment. It’s a kind of Lincoln Logs stacking of horizontal beams that allows for visual and atmospheric penetration from the main hall so that VIPs won’t feel so lonely and removed while sitting within, sipping glasses of Perrier-Jouët.

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Study for “”38 Beams”, Kundig Olsen Architects

The massive beams, measuring about 15″ by 30″ and 30 feet long, were recycled from an old industrial building in Los Angeles, refurbished, flame-proofed and then lightly sanded by Spearhead, a specialty wood fabricators in Vancouver. The lighting and music were also created by Northwestern talents and even the hostesses wear white overalls designed by Seattle designer Totokaelo.

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“38 Beams” Kundig Olsen

On Thursday morning I’m obliged to moderate a fractious panel on the theme of “The Future of Design” at an industrial complex in the Little River area of North Miami with furniture diva Patrizia Moroso, Italian architect/designer Piero Lissoni, and Israeli-Brit enfant terrible Ron Arad who speaks about his remodel of the infamous Watergate building in Washington DC. As well as architectural changes, Arad has designed everything from furniture to napkins and stationary with a font based on shredded documents from the Watergate hearings of 1973. He also managed to sabotage the planned program by unveiling a new prototype inspired by a funky old mattress that he spotted on the street near his London studio. The mattress was bent against a wall, deformed, reeking of malodorous human indignities, but Arad became obsessed with its form, taking photographs, making sketches and somehow transforming the mattress from trash into an elegant low-impact couch that he named “Matrizia” in honor of Patrizia Moroso who laughed and, on the spot, agreed to put the thing into production at her family’s 62-year-old factory in Udine, Italy. A design critic from England pointed out that while most designers see a problem and attempt to come up with a solution, Arad sees a problem and creates more problems.

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Ron Arad, Problem Maker

Winds off the ocean are strong and the traffic gets even worse. After a long sleepy lunch on a balcony overlooking a railway line, I go swimming in the turbulent ocean and it feels good to get away from all the art and design events even though I get stung by a cluster of small blue jellyfish. A rash spreads up my neck in the shape of a radiating vector and the stinging only begins to subside as I arrive at an Indonesian dinner in honor of Theo Jansen, Dutch artist and star of the week who created the Strandbeests (“beach animals”), articulated, kinetic sculptures that walk along the strand like giant, multi-legged insects, powered only by wind power.

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Theo Jansen’s ‘Strandbeest’

Friday morning, the wind whips off Biscayne Bay, rattling through the portals of the Perez Art Museum and the concrete cavities of Nick Grimshaw’s Museum of Science, seeming to pick up velocity as it caroms off buildings and spills down onto the site of this morning’s official groundbreaking for One Thousand Museum, the bone-like, 62-story tower designed by Zaha Hadid. A temporary wall of trees tips over and spreads dirt over the carpeting. Tables collapse, champagne glasses shatter. Waiters with mimosas and tiny croissants try to contain the damage. Valet parking attendants and security personnel scatter and then regroup as Hadid herself arrives, an hour late, entering the throng like a rock star, a royal personage, a diva who now finds herself surrounded by crazed fans pushing their I-Phones into her face and inching closer to get a shot of the architect who is now trying to smile, now looking somewhat embarrassed, now growing concerned for her own safety as a Miami-Dade cop pushes into the mob and goes to her rescue, shielding her from further abuse.

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Zaha Hadid’s One Thousand Museum Tower

 

I’m supposed to get a 15-minute interview but abandon all hope and leave the scene before Hadid scatters the first ceremonial clump of dirt. There’s a Champagne Brunch on the beach, an immersive video event, a plastic pollution installation in Wynwood, the Peter Marino show at the Bass Museum, a Prouvé demountable house at the Delano that I still haven’t seen but I give up after sitting for an hour in cross-bay traffic and finally abandon my car by the side of the road and cross the Venetian Causeway on foot. It seems that protests have broken out in reaction to the Eric Garner grand jury on Staten Island. Roads are blocked and conditions escalate when news gets out about a similar case of police brutality in Miami itself: Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez, a 21-year-old street artist otherwise known as “Demz,” was run over by a squad car this morning when the cops spotted him “tagging” a private building near 24th Street and gave chase. Gutierrez is now in hospital in critical condition suffering from severe brain trauma. All week the entire Wynwood area has been filled with graffiti artists from around the world, but no one thought to arrest them because they were being “artists” working in tandem with Art Basel Week.

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The crowds are swelling, tempers flaring, momentum building as the mob moves outward and expands into a single body with a single mind: “I CAN’T BREATHE!” they chant, holding up their hands, “I CAN’T BREATHE!” echoing Garner’s dying words. Gaining confidence, the protesters march onto Interstate-195, shutting down the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a prime connector between mainland and beach, between art fairs and design shows, disrupting the to and fro, the art world gossip, the back-room deals and interviews and celebrity cluster fucks, VIP red carpets, vacuous panel discussions. Suddenly the entire Art Basel Bubble bursts with the loud refrain: “I CAN’T BREATHE!” and there is nothing left but an urge to file this report as quickly as I can, but feel pressed to relate the ending back to the beginning–as a proper story should–when the starlings rose up in their murmuration on Monday afternoon and appeared to be telling me something that I couldn’t understand, and am still at a loss for words.

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Postscript: Graffiti artist Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez died Tuesday night, December 9, 2014.

RIP ‘Demz’

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PLENOPTIC FOUNTAINHEAD: Art Basel Miami, 2013


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Miami continues to reshape its image and rebrand itself as a vibrant new city under the sun, part Utopia, part Dystopia, but swelling with dozens of riotous new projects, all screaming for attention. Every brand-name architect in the world came to town this week promoting yet another high-profile project like the new Miami Beach convention center and park by Rem Koolhass/OMA; and then there’s a 60-story “exoskeleton” tower and vulvic parking structure in the works by Zaha Hadid; condos by Ceasar Pelli; shimmering glass cubes by Richard Meier over the old Surf Club; twin towers shaped like dueling tornados by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels; and a science museum by Nicholas Grimshaw.31303030206d757365756d3232
There’s something oddly pale and bone-like about many of these proposed structures, presented as they are in garish CAD renderings, as if already doomed and dried out in the sun, exploiting architecture as the mightiest of marketing tools with wildly sculptural forms, oversized balconies expanding giddily into fleckless blue skies, dare-devil verticality, shifting axes, structures revealed in all-over transparency and other forms of architectural voyeurism. The buildings are sparsely populated by slender digital figures–one percenters in tailored suits and bikini-clad super models–who appear to be enjoying a future of sexual experimentation, sunbathing and floating listlessly in electric blue swimming pools. In a rendering for one new structure, a single heroic figure stands in silhouette on a cantilevered balcony, sipping a mojito and watching the sunset over Biscayne Bay. He appears to be the Architect, the new Howard Roark in sybaritic suspension, oblivious and unaware of the rising waters and social unrest brewing down below. And within this sunny, plenoptic Fountainhead, the moody charcoal chiaroscuro that Hugh Ferriss popularized in his Depression-era renderings, has been replaced by a completely shadow-less empire awash in waves of translucent blue pixels.

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As Miami’s skyline rises higher with glassy phallic towers, the city continues to sink at ever alarming rates. On any given day, you can find areas that are already under water, depending on the tide and lunar cycle, yet there was hardly a mention of “green” or climate change all week, except for the engulfing sand dune (above) at the entry to Design Miami that was designed by Garrett Ricciardi and Julian Rose of formlessfinder and hinted at some sort of cataclysmic event. “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,” said Harold Wanless, chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. “It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.” Environmental scientists predict that by 2030–only 16 years from now–the sea will have risen more than two feet and as much as six feet by the end of the century or even sooner, thereby creating a Bling-Miami version of Atlantis with all the flamboyant new buildings submerged. Dutch flood experts were flown in to consult and Broward County has enacted a climate change master plan, but developers in Miami Beach seem to have missed the memo.

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This is all part of a trend that started way back in 2011 with Frank Gehry’s New World Symphony Hall in Miami Beach that was soon followed by Herzog & de Meuron’s high-design parking structure at 1111 Lincoln Road, an instant landmark for the “New Miami” with open-frame structure, flaring, fin-like supports, spiraling ramps and disco lighting–something between Piranesi and Lady Gaga. “We proved that a parking garage could become an interesting space,” said Jacques Herzog who proved that an über-garage could become a party space for non-parking cultural events like the “Piston Head” exhibition curated by Adam Lindemann this week with “repurposed” cars created by
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artists like Damien Hirst, Richard Prince and Kenny Scharf, as well as a nicely pancaked
Fiat by Ron Arad (right). Herzog was in town to celebrate the opening of his firm’s latest triumph, the controversially named Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). It was, without question, the super-star attraction of the week. Despite a rushed construction schedule, the museum managed to open to the public on Tuesday with mounds of sand, pots of overturned palmettos, and thousands of visitors tramping over rough gravel, funneling between chain-link fencing to reach the new Jewel on the Bay, many of them wondering if it was the Swiss architects’ intent to leave building and grounds so unfinished looking, not realizing that the project was, in fact, unfinished.

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Patrick Blanc–the French inventor of vertical landscaping–was frantically running around with died-green hair, green shirt, green pants, green boots and long curling fingernails, giving orders to Latino plantsmen, unnerved by the fact that they hadn’t inserted all 54,700 of the exotic plants his plan called for (including 77 local species of salvia, begonia, silver-leafed artemisia, columnea and sedum), and wondering out loud how they could be so late in getting around to finishing such an important task. I said something smug like “Welcome to Miami,” while introducing him to a young blogger from Harvard who complimented him (twice!) on the bicycle-wheel installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei.

**Patrick Blanc-PAMM (AG)“This?” he said, spinning one of Wei Wei’s wheels in response to Holly Golightly’s misdirected compliment. “This is not me,” he said. “C’est pas moi!

The new museum hovers lightly over Biscayne Bay with a degree of humility that is uncharacteristic for a city of architectonic hubris. It’s not an “iconic” mass or signature statement so much as an airy, dissipated assemblage of screens, slender columns, scrims and cubic volumes (containing art galleries) that float between a wooden roof “trellis” above and cantilevered terraces below. Of course, the overall effect will be greatly enhanced when peripheral gardens fill in, the public plaza and neighboring museum by Grimshaw are completed, and Blanc’s dangling gardens are lushly sprouting so that the entire structure begins to resemble the original vision of an overgrown ruin, a kind of monumental chia pet or, as Herzog described it to me, a sprawling banyan tree with multiple trunks and dangling air roots. “This isn’t some strip mall,” said PAMM’s director Tom Collins, and he’s right. “This is really sophisticated design.”

**PAMM, south facade. Iwan Baan. 2 Early proposals showed pyramidal forms and stacked slabs rising vertically, as if to compete with the skyscrapers of downtown Miami, but such temptations were ultimately resisted and lower, less conspicuous forms replaced strident profiles. “Museums work better when they’re horizontal,” said Herzog who, with partner Christine Binswanger, managed to meld the 120,000-square-foot facility into place without
Pérez Art Museum Miami
disrupting the messy urban vitality and natural beauty of the site at the intersection of Northeast 11th Street, Biscayne Boulevard and the MacArthur Causeway. The sea-brewed light is voluptuous, sparkling, almost iridescent with inlets and ocean on one side, skyscrapers and sprawling urban infrastructure on the other. The building sits at the very crux of a dynamic convergence between Nature and Commerce, overlooking Museum Park, the elevated tracks of the Miami Metrorail, the Venetian Causeway, the picturesque islands of Biscayne Bay and the convex shell of the American Airlines Arena (home to the Miami Heat). Cars and people movers whizz past; cruise ships come and go through Government Cut; tankers unload at the adjacent Port of Miami; jetliners stream overhead, making their final descent into Miami International. It’s as thrilling as any building site can hope to be. Now this city, famous for its short attention span, is obliged to rise to the occasion and make up for all the shortcomings in the museum’s spotty collection. To be fair, gifts have been pouring in during the past few months from Jorge M. Pérez, Debra and Dennis Scholl, Mimi and Bud Floback, Craig Robbins and Jackie Sofer, among others, but the art on the walls still pales in comparison to the architecture that enfolds it.

An international pantheon of famous architects congregated for the “Imagine the Future – Now!” power dinner at the Wolfsonian Museum on Wednesday evening, hosted by Director Cathy Leff. Her guests included Norman Foster (has he lost his “Sir” or not?), Richard Meier, Jean Nouvel, Herzog, Binswanger, Dror Benshetrit, Bjarke Ingels, Shohei Shigematsu, Enrique Norten, Laurinda Spear, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and **Nouvel at Wolfsonian, AGIwan Ban, the brilliant architectural photographer who was in town to shoot PAMM. Terry Riley was at both the Wolfsonian dinner and the Design Miami tent, talking about the competition he organized for the Terra and Related development groups that included projects by Christian de Portzamparc, Nouvel, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Koolhass/OMA who were all invited to offer ideas for a mid-rise residential building on a waterfront site in Coral Gables. “Our solution was to distribute the 500,000 square feet of living between a field of slender towers,” said OMA partner Shigematsu, who turned out to have the winning scheme. The six towers in OMA’s **4 Visions Miami - OMA model, AGproposal have no interior columns, which allows for uninhibitedly naked exposure and maximum views. “One of our theories is that one can offset this excessive compulsion toward the spectacular with a return to simplicity,” said Rem Koolhaas somewhat cryptically given the spectacular vanity of his own proposal. (All of the entrants’ models and drawings were unveiled this week at Design Miami as well as the book Four (4) New Visions for Living in Miami published in tandem with the exhibition.)

**8x8 Demountable house ext-02It would seem that old is new, yet again, and that the future lies mysteriously imbedded in the past, somehow, and yes, it says something about current design trends that some of the most noteworthy artifacts of the 2013 fairs were vintage, like the furniture that Charlotte Perriand created for French industrialist Jean Borot in the 1950s **Prouvé - AGand was shown at the Laffanour Galerie booth; or the vintage Gio Ponti pieces recreated by Molenti&C at Modus Miami in the Design District; or Jean Prouvé’s “Demountable House” of 1945 that French gallerist Patrick Seguin shipped to Miami and reconstructed in the Design Miami tent. It’s the gray patina, the sadness in those weathered boards that make it so compelling and relevant for today amid so many shiny new objects at the other booths. The central structural support–a Prouvé signature “caliper” made from yellow sheet metal–further emphasizes the melancholic, refugee/concentration-camp geist of the worn wood siding on the house’s exterior, while inside an equally Spartan treatment is carried through with whitewashed walls and moody lighting from Prouvé’s own minimal fixtures.

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White surgical booties were required footwear for members of the press if you wanted to get a sneak preview inside Charlotte Perriand’s Maison au Bord de l’Eau, a project based loosely on a couple of sketchy renderings that Perriand drew in 1934 for a competition organized by L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui–somewhat akin to the **charlotte-perriand-L-QCVyBVspeck of DNA from a prehistoric mosquito being used to create a dinosaur in Jurassic Park. The house was fully reconstructed by Louis Vuitton on a sandy lot ** SKETCH - Maison Au Bord De L'Eauat the back of the Raleigh Hotel–a place so perfectly re-imagined, so finely constructed and finished, and now maintained by young women in blue dresses, that one had to wonder if it was real or a three-dimensional hologram. I wasn’t quite sure, even when I touched the smoothly finished walls with my own fingers. (Perhaps they should have handed out special goggles as well as the surgical booties.) Indeed, the house is more fantasy than reality: the radical modernism of Perriand has been cleansed of all social content and turned into a branding tool for the luxury fashion house of LVMH.

**Miami_Ch Perriand Inside becomes outside in the central deck that is covered by a canopy of white canvas. Below are some potted plants and reproductions of Perriand’s furniture, the Chaise Longue Pliante of 1939 and the Table Basse en Ardoise of 1934, designed specifically for the Maison. All of this served as the manicured backdrop for LV’s Spring/Summer 2014 Collection Icônes with modern, tasteful clothes based on Perriand’s sensibility, clean, minimal and refreshingly non-bling: green silk gingham long-sheath dress, gingham shorts, blue cape, striped shift and leggings, color blocked to match the furniture and architecture. Indeed, Perriand’s entire universe has been appropriated: her smiling face,**Miami_Ch Perriand, 129 her deck chairs and knick knacks, her little dream shack. As the press blurb purred: “Fresh as a breeze from the mountaintops, graphic as the stroke of an architect’s pen, the ‘Icônes’ collections for Summer 2014 invite a timeless feminine elegance…” But Perriand, who passed away fifteen years ago, never had any say in the matter and one wonders if she really wanted to be re-branded like this in our current Age of Appropriation.

Norman Foster was in town, unveiling a master plan for the Norton Museum of Art in Palm **Norman Foster @ Delano - AGBeach to a throng of pink-slacked bankers, Channel-suited board members, architects, PR flacks and members of the diminishing architectural press, all gathered in a private dining room at the Delano Hotel on Wednesday afternoon. Foster himself was nattily clad in a white linen suit, at peace with the world, smiling and shaking hands. “What does this building really want to be?” he said, standing at the front of the room. “‘Please help me rediscover my roots,’ asks the building. Bring in water and green the landscape, inspired by the lush vegetation of south Florida…” Spencer de Grey, Foster’s joint Head of Design, was also on hand, wearing goggle-style spectacles and explaining some of the finer points of the elegantly simple plan, which is shaped in part around a 150-year-old Ficus tree that grows in front of the museum. The deep overhang of **NORTON MUSEUM, 65the roof has a circular cutout to accommodate the tree while a floor-to-ceiling window in the new, multi-purpose “Great Hall” was designed to frame the majestic tree and make it the project’s “anchor and reference point,” according to the architects. “What if the poor tree dies?” asked one board member, peering into the scale model that was prominently on display. (No one seemed to have an answer.) The master plan keeps much of the original 1941 building–an otherwise nondescript, neoclassical pile with courtyard–in tact. It re-establishes the original entry from the Dixie Highway (US Rt. 1) and rotates the central axis while re-contextualizing the older galleries for the 21st Century. Four new pavilions will effectively double the museum’s exhibition space and include a reception area, restaurant, new auditorium and education area to help bring the museum into the community that it serves. “It’s a very wide palette of activities and spaces,” said Foster, pointing to the street-side plaza that features a long rectangular pool to reflect sunlight under the overhang, creating a shimmering pattern and animating the entry facade.

**Christina Bingswanger's Finger - Jade, Raleigh, AG

“Views to the beach are all perpendicular,” said Christine Binswanger (left & right) of Herzog and De Meuron, sitting on the back porch of the Raleigh Hotel with a coffee and half-eaten lemon meringue in front of***BINSWANGER her, pointing at a diagram and explaining how Jade Signature, yet another billionaire condo tower, is being built on the beach in Sunny Isles for Fortune International and scheduled to open in 2016. Binswanger is partner in charge of this 57-story cliff dwelling that looks surprisingly not unlike other condo towers but there are a few notable distinctions. The exterior surface is perforated with floor-to-ceiling glass and deep overhangs that block the sun. Partitions were designed in what she calls a “Vocabulary of Columns”, pulled and stretched to bring in human scale and alternated between units depending on the floor’s layout. The concrete forms, something like the scalloped slots of a cheese grater, express a porous and cellular surface, one that is more articulated and responsive to light and far less soulless than the reflective facades of most Miami towers. A seemingly random pattern ripples between concave and convex with sculpted cartilage supporting each corner as the building ascends to a slightly tapered top. The ground-floor clutter that usually hinders these types  **Jade, 73of buildings has been avoided by using a second-floor lobby and underground parking. Interiors are luxurious white expanses with ten- to twelve-foot ceilings and thirty percent of each floor given over to outdoor space with generously wide balconies. Each unit goes all the way through from back to front, offering both sunrise and sunset, bay and ocean views, while floors are staggered to allow for cross-ventilation, and this, emphasizes Binswanger, should alleviate the need for air conditioning during winter months.

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The rest of week dissipated into a blur of extravagant cocktails and traffic jams, eating nothing but tiny spring rolls one day, three lunches, two dinners the next, a long tent on the beach with Swarovski crystals, no-show celebrities, Piotr Uklanski at the Bass, Hugo França’s sculptural benches at Fairchild Gardens, AIDS benefit, tall super models, media tours, VIP lounges, book signings, pop-up stores and fashion shows, Wynwood, the ubiquitous Craig Robins, Pulse, Ice Palace, Aqua, Nada, Scope, “Untitled” in a tent on the on beach, De La Cruz Collection, Chinese art at Rubells, wandering Lincoln Road with Ron Arad in his flip-up hat and general Miami oblivion. It was sunny and 82 degrees when I left, but Siberian-style white out when I landed back in New York.

A version of this story appeared in the Architect’s Newspaper on December 12, 2013:
http://archpaper.com/news/articles.asp?id=6987

 

MURDER IN THE SWAMP

Vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken  trees.                                –  Peter Matthiesen

Could it be those fingers of swampy wildness that reach into the Metroplex with Saw Grass and Coontie? The whorl-shaped sloughs that surround Ft. Lauderdale airport? The drainage ditches along Route 75 or the mysterious savannah I first glimpsed through a chain-link fence on the way to Key West? Where do the Everglades begin?  Sometimes, strolling through Bal Harbour, I catch a whiff of jungle funk wafting on the breeze from an outlying swale and I think of Ponce de León, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and others who came here for conquest and glory, but only found mosquitoes, disease, and sodden camp sites. The Spanish were perplexed by the place and so were the English. It was a problem of entry, perception, discovery, mapping, claiming territory and finding familiar points of reference. Journalists and poets didn’t know how to write about it. Artists didn’t know how to paint it. There was no real center, no overarching theme or landmark, no mountain, canyon or picturesque waterfall. The Glades splayed and sprawled and seeped restlessly southwards from Lake Okeechobee in the river of grass that conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote about. But the river metaphor was misleading to many because one imagined a river as a meandering channel between two banks while this was more like a hundred-mile swathe of water without sides, only a few inches deep, continually moving southwards in a steady flow, what modern hydrographers call sheetflow or what the Seminoles called Pa-Hay-Okee, meaning grassy water.

Explorers, missionaries, surveyors, botanists and plume hunters used less dignified adjectives like dismal, barren, hideous, desolate, monotonous, lonely, lost, impenetrable, impossible, inundated, unnavigable to describe the “God-abandoned hellscape” that was the Everglades. “No obstruction offered itself to the eye as it wandered o’er the interminable, dreary waste of waters, except the tops of tall rank grass, about five feet or upwards in height, and which harmonized well with the desolate aspect of the surrounding regions, exhibiting a picture of universal desolation,” wrote army surgeon Jacob Motte who passed through during the Seminole Wars of 1836-1838. [*Journey into Wilderness: An Army Surgeons’s Account of Life in Camp and Field During the Creek and Seminole Wars, 1836-1838, via Michael Grunwald’s meticulously researched The Swamp, Simon & Schuster, 2006, p. 42.]

 Today there are numerous points of penetration, gateways of a sort to the placeless place: one to the west in Chokoloskee, another to the south in a ghost town called Flamingo. A raised wooden walkway leads through a flooded cypress landscape near Monroe Station or you can paddle your kayak through the mangrove tunnels of Nine-Mile Pond. There’s also a limited access through Lake Chekika and Grossman’s Hammock although they’re often flooded during the wet season.

Of course, the real obstacle is psychological, not physical. It’s a matter of adjusting one’s expectations and learning to paint oneself into the picture, so to speak, slowing down, catching the translucent layers and hidden hues. My son and I set out on Thursday morning with bug spray, sun block, and a copy of Peter Matthiesen’s Shadow Country as our guide, a novel infested with outlaws, drifters, ragged desperados, and the man at the center, Edgar J. Watson, also known as “Bloody Watson,” who’s more complex than Hamlet. What may have once felt like a mental barrier, an impossible transition from Bling City to Pa-Hay-Okee, now proves to be quite effortless.

You simply retrieve the rented car from valet parking and drive west along SW 8th Street until it turns into Route 41, continue in a straight line past Krome Avenue and the pastel-pink-and-blue blob of the Miccosukee Gambling Casino, last vestige of civilization before the horizontal sweep of the Everglades unfolds with only an occasional airboat ride and alligator wrestling joint, passing over weirs, sluices and drainage canals designed to control the uncontrollable. It’s flat and repetitive, reminiscent of the polders of Holland with the same translucent, water-saturated light that Jacob van Ruisdael painted. The sky seems vast, overbearing.

        

You continue west on the Tamiami Trail through Water Conservation Area #3B where the natural flow of the Glades has been interrupted by canals, levees and roadways so that water has to be transferred from the north to south by a complex system of pumps and sluice gates, a kind of artificial life-support system devised by the Army Corps of Engineers.

About thirty-five miles west of the Miccosukee Gambling Casino there’s a turn off for the Shark River Slough. You can walk or take a trolley out to the observation tower, and it’s really quite a beautiful, if absurd, monument standing out there in the middle of Motte’s universal desolation, a kind of deconstructed Guggenheim Museum built during the spacy 1960s (originally a fire lookout) with a ramp and two-tiered tower rising sixty feet above the marshy expanse. Here, in this place where there’s no there, as Gertrude Stein put it, the tower provides a kind of metaphysical thereness, a 360-degree frame of reference.

 

From afar, it has the presence of De Chirico’s Great Tower of 1913: lonely, spectral, melancholic, but as you get closer you can see that it splays out with a concrete pedestrian chute that makes a wide, cantilevered spiral over a boggy sump of sedges and spikerushes: needle spikerush, scallion grass, dwarf hairgrass, fewflower, false junco, umbrella hairgrass

And then there’s the humble but mysterious Periphyton, tubular, spongy algae that clusters in mats just below the surface of the water. It provides nutrients while filtering pollutants, retains water and helps to sustain the balance of moisture in the Everglades during the dry season.

It starts to rain again as soon as we reach the top of the tower and try to take in the panorama of flooded desert, sawgrass prairie with occasional pools, narrow canals, clumps of hardwood rising slightly higher but otherwise flat and featureless to the horizon in every direction. As a destination it remains unaccommodating, resists interpretation. On first glance it looks like nothing. Maybe it takes a day or more to get used to the ineffable scale and emptiness. Maybe then you finally catch the subtle gradations of sky and light across the broader expanses. In any case, it’s a long, slow read: muted strokes of pale ochre, viridian, with slightly denser patches of tea-green, pale sea green, asparagus green, dotted here and there by tiny flecks of berry, red, umber and yellow, and unusual plants that grow in moving water like bladderwort, spatterdock, maidencane, white water lily, and a few undernourished slash pines in the distance.

A group of geriatric Danes arrive by trolley and move up the ramp as if a single Viking organism. They take photographs and hurry back down. We stay a bit longer, gazing at the sub-wash of pink-tinged heliotrope that might be a result of watery light refracted through the shallows, somehow, I’m not sure, but maybe the matte grayness of the lowering sky acts as a sponge, a kind of optical Periphyton, pulling invasive hues up from the groundscape.

On my way back from the tower, a chatty Park Ranger offers me some type of edible brown berry. Will I hallucinate?  He laughs.  The Calusas used it in ceremonies.  It has the bittersweet tang of Scottish marmalade and leaves my mouth oddly dry with a zincish aftertaste. I jot down the name of the plant but lose the slip of paper.

We drive further west past Monroe Station and Ochopee, past America’s smallest post office, built circa 1916 for work crews on the Tamiami Trail , then left onto Route 29 and Everglades City, not a city at all but cheap motels and trailer parks with a current population of under 500. City founders like Barron Collier and the Storter family had high hopes, envisioning a marshy utopia laid out in a grid of streets and avenues–Storter, Copeland, Kumquat, Collier–with a traffic circle at the center and an imposing city hall, a bank, laundry, churches and a proper schoolhouse. They even built a trolley line through the middle of town anticipating the coming boom but no one came and most of the lots remain empty, awaiting urbanization.

Lunch of deep-fried gator tail and frog legs at creaky Rod and Gun Club–old homestead of George W. Storter, early settler and sugar planter. The lobby glows with an orange hue from a thousand coats of shellac over walls and stuffed tarpon, alligator heads and panthers, their jaws now slack and leaking dust.

Above the reception desk hang photographs of several U.S. Presidents, earnest-eyed hunters and fishermen from the 1920s when the place flourished as a sportsman’s retreat. Hemingway came here, so did Zane Grey. Now it’s sour with ammonia and a family of possum scatter when I step through the back door, and tell myself it’s good background material for something.

But I can never claim this as narrative space for myself because it’s already been irrevocably staked and claimed by Matthiesen and his great swamp epic Shadow Country, so much so that I feel like I’m literally sliding down one of his sinewy sentences as we cross the causeway onto Chokoloskee itself: “…a baleful sky out toward the Gulf looks ragged as a ghost, unsettled, wandering.” And he’s right. The sky is ghostly, witholding rain and wandering in a way that gives me a headache just squinting at the steamy light. Maybe it’s the vapor from so many shallow estuaries, too many ions, the swamp gas or miasma that was thought to cause Malaria. I don’t have a clue. There’s a shirtless man in the shallows near the bridge, fishing with a butterfly net. A dull, blue-gray line marks the horizon as if we’d finally reached the end of the world.

Nothing much to Chokoloskee itself, more cheap bungalows, trailer parks, shabby pre-fabs propped on concrete pylons. We turn past the Havana Café onto Mamie Street and find the pitted track that leads to Smallwood’s General Store, a wood-framed building, painted red and raised high on cedar posts to escape flood. Inside, there’s one long and poorly illuminated chamber with hardly any windows but an open door at the far end, filtering swamp-brewed light from the Gulf of Mexico. The barge-like structure was built in 1906 by Charles Sherod “Ted” Smallwood with low-pitched roof, vertical boards of termite-resistant slash pine, all of it propped high on locust posts like Noah’s Ark, ready to float away in the final Deluge. I have a sudden urge to buy something, but there’s nothing for sale other than a few old postcards.

It housed the original post office and Indian trading post and is now open as a museum of sorts, frozen in time somewhere about 1941, the year that Smallwood retired as postmaster, and a decade before the causeway to the mainland was finished. Shelves are stacked along side walls, original counters and glass vitrines in tact and stuffed with dusty relics. It also provides the opening scenography for Shadow Country: the hurricane of 1910 has just passed and the novel begins with a kind of Biblical inventory-taking of objects ravaged and rendered useless by the storm: “Pots, kettles, crockery, a butter churn, tin tubs, buckets, blackened vegetables, salt-slimed boots, soaked horsehair mattresses, a ravished doll are strewn across bare salt-killed ground...” The grounds around Smallwood’s store are still puddled with a putrefying stench of death and rank corruption. “Vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken treesstove-in boats, uprooted shacks… odd pieces torn away from their old places hanging askew, strained from the flood by mangrove limbs twisted down into the tide.”

There’s a similar tidal wash of inventory inside Smallwood’s store today: pickle jars, animal skins, moldy books and magazines, tobacco tins, old-fashioned tinctures and ointments in their original boxes, hurricane lanterns, axe handles, 1923 typewriter, sacks of raw sugar (Pearl White, Fine Granulated,) Miccosukee weavings, turtle shell, dried sponge, sawfish rostrum, gator jaws, photo albums, candy jars, coffee grinder, old pop bottles, egret plumes, ancient cash register, faded signs and photographs of how the place once looked–much the same as now–and a scale model that someone made from toothpicks and popsicle sticks. In fact, there are two scale models, one being quite elaborate and lit from within, something like the miniature spirit shrines you see along the roadsides of Southeast Asia, but in this case honoring the myth of self-sufficiency and the lost ways of frontier living.

The postmaster’s window is still there and so is Ted Smallwood’s bedroom in a back corner, gloomy with creaky bedsprings and threadbare quilt, Victorian undergarments hanging from a line over his bed. There’s also a life-sized mannequin of Ted Smallwood himself sitting in a rocking chair with a milky, infinite look in his eyes, staring out towards the bay.

On the other side of the store, someone has put together a little display, almost an altar, dedicated to the Watson legacy with letters, photographs and drawings, a charcoal rendering of the man, an oil painting of his house at Chatham Bend, newspaper clippings, letters, old pamphlets and books that tell the story. There’s even a box of shells and a shotgun that was supposedly used in his execution, and a hand-drawn sign that proudly states: “KILLING MR. WATSON WAS A COMMUNITY PROJECT.”

 

 

The crudely marked map has circles and arrows that point to locations where Watson’s victims were said to be buried: Lostman’s Key, Storter Bay, Opossum Key, Deer Island and if you have a morbid curiosity you can paddle your kayak down the Wilderness Waterway and visit these sites or go to the Watson place on Chatham River, twenty miles south of Chockoloskee.  How many bodies did he bury in the inlets and shoals around his homestead?  How many did he really kill? There’s a sign and a little dock that the park service maintains. The house burned down a long time ago but  the foundation still exists as well as a cistern and some spooky remains of the Watson sugar works.

There’s a photograph of Watson himself set in a Victorian frame with a  floral pattern embossed around the olive-gray matting. He’s sitting upright, wearing a tightly fitted jacket, high lapels and short tie, but I find it hard to look at the face. A surprising face, not what I’d imagined, wide and urgent, clear brow, receding hairline; high, square forehead. Wary of ambush, Watson was said to never turn his back on anyone, even a child, and there’s a cant to the head, slightly to the left, as if the photographer caught him off guard, in motion, ready for a turn, retreat or drawing of his pistol.

“He was a Scotsman with red hair and fair skin and mild blue eyes,” wrote Marjorie Douglas in the 1940s, after interviewing people who were old enough to remember the man. “He was quiet spoken and pleasant to people. But people noticed one thing. When he stopped to talk on a Fort Myers street, he never turned his back to anyone.” Was he glaring at the nervous photographer? There’s  a resemblance, not unlike a certain paternal grandfather,  but it’s hard to look at the old tintype and not see a serial killer. Without such foreknowledge he might be mistaken for a mid-level banker, fish-oil salesman or prominent planter, which is what he was, but there’s something in the eyes that blows that illusion. The eyes are high and creepily close together, intense and penetrating, verging toward madness.

A 19th-century phrenologist would read Watson’s high, broad forehead as obdurate, stubborn, willful and prone to outbursts of violence. The pronounced ears were said to signify lude passions according to Owen Squire Fowler, phrenologist and octagon-house pioneer, but the mouth and jaw are impossible to read because Watson sported such a thick moustache and mutton-chop sideburns as if to conceal his true, ornery nature. Were his lips full and fleshy or were they thin and coldly pursed? Did they smirk with an ironic foreshadowing of his own demise or were they locked in a permanent frown? It’s hard to tell.

The waxy, end-blown light inside Smallwood’s makes me feel like I’m standing inside an overexposed sepia tintype myself. My stomach is rumbling. The fried gator from lunch is crawling back up my gullet in a bid for reptilian revenge. I’m relieved to walk onto the back porch that hangs over Chokoloskee Bay and look down to the very spot where Watson pushed his boat ashore onto a bed of broken shells, just before he met his violent end that day, October 24, 1910.

We climb down a rickety staircase and stand on the murder spot. The sun is setting over the Gulf and I peer into the subfusc crawl space (more like walk space) where Smallwood kept his chickens. They were all drowned in the hurricane and the postmaster was cleaning out the sorry mess when the shootout started. “Wincing, Smallwood arches his back, takes a dreadful breath, gags, hawks, expels the sweet taste of chicken rot in his mouth and nostrils.” No chickens now, only sand and the smell of salted pine down there along with a Miccosukee dugout, beautifully carved and propped on a wooden stand. This was where the neighborhood posse gathered in twilight and gunned down E.J. Watson in cold blood.

“He never crumpled but fell slow as a felled tree… You never seen a man so dead in all your life.” More than thirty-three bullets were pulled from the bloated corpse and plunked into a coffee can. After that they stopped counting.

                                            “If nobody is innocent, who can be guilty?”
                      [*Quotations from Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen, Random House, 2008.]