Fairs Analysis USA

Starchitects make their mark in Miami

The big names of architecture lured to attract the super rich to the city

Foster + Partners’ Faena House

“Miami used to get called the place where famous architects come to do their worst buildings,” says the architect and former director of the Miami Art Museum (MAM), now renamed the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Terry Riley, “but that doesn’t seem to be the case any more”. Six years after Miami’s last property bubble burst the market is booming again, and this time developers are looking to international stars of architecture to create landmark buildings.

Miami is a city built on boom and bust. Since 1910, when the Quaker farmer John Collins decided to build a casino and a hotel on an island swamp, now known as Miami Beach, the city has been subject to the whims of ambitious property developers. The wild speculation of the 1920 led to a huge expansion of the city’s metropolitan area as architects favoured the historical-pastiche of the Mediterranean Revival style. When the bubble burst in 1926, Miami plunged into recession, three years before the Great Depression. Later the smooth lines and pastel facades of South Beach’s Art Deco hotels became synonymous with Miami glamour, followed by the city’s own less Minimalist version of post-war Modernism, MiMo. For Riley, these styles represented “a sort of fantasy image of Miami that was meant not just for local consumption but also for out-of-towners”.

At MAM, Riley was instrumental in bringing in the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to design the new $220m, Pérez Art Museum Miami, which opened this week in downtown’s newly-designated Museum Park. The museum was renamed following a $40m cash and art donation from Miami’s “Condo King”, the property developer Jorge Pérez. In 2015 the park will also welcome the $273m Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, designed by London’s Grimshaw Architects, while over the road Zaha Hadid has designed an “ultra-luxury” residential tower block, 1000 Museum, complete with helipad and “custom scenting”, due to be complete in 2018. Foster + Partners, Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron, Bjarke Ingels and Enrique Norton also have luxury condominiums in the pipeline. The penthouse in the Foster-designed Faena House, launching in 2014, is listed at an eye-watering $50m.

So why is Miami turning to star names? The property developer Craig Robins, the co-founder of Design Miami and the entrepreneur behind the city’s Design District, says expectations have grown. “A natural consequence of the Art Basel/Design Miami experience was an elevated appreciation of design,” Robins says. Robins has built on this “fair effect” by commissioning architects such as Sou Fujimoto, the Japanese designer of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, London, to create innovative retail spaces within the Design District. This type of project, together with well-received public buildings such as Frank Gehry’s New World Center, which opened in 2011, have raised the bar for residential buildings too. “Buyers previously only considered the lobby and the view,” Riley says, “but this new sophisticated buyer is more interested what the building says about them”.

There is also an economic imperative to bring in the big names. “Developers need the ‘starchitect’ name to attract ultra-wealthy buyers”, says Peter Zalewski, the founder of property market analysts Condo Vultures. During the last boom investors were typically expected to put down a 20% deposit pre-construction, with developers keeping a tight control over building design. After the crash, with banks unwilling to lend, they are now relying on the buyer to put down a 50% deposit. “The only people who are able to do this are the ultra-wealthy; they want something unique, and this is why the allure of the ‘starchitect’ is essential to convince them to take a shot at the project,” Zalewski says. These investors tend to be foreign, many of them Latin American, attracted by the relative weakness of the dollar and the promise of high returns.

A darker side to the cash-rich condo market was highlighted in October when The Nation ran the cover story, “Miami: Where Luxury Real Estate Meets Dirty Money”. The report claimed that “significant numbers of foreign condo buyers are political figures and businesspeople seeking to illegally export capital abroad, launder profits or evade taxes.” Cases include that of the Spanish brothers, Álvaro and Artemio López Tardón, who are currently standing trial accused of conspiracy to launder more than $26m in drug smuggling proceeds (they deny the charges). Properties bought by the brothers included numerous luxury Miami Beach condominiums.

With 174 new towers in the region either proposed, planned or under construction, according to Condo Vultures, is Miami heading for another bust? Developers argue that huge cash deals, with little leverage, greatly reduce this risk. Zalewski estimates there is £1.3bn worth of bank lending involved in current projects, compared with £11bn during the last boom, but he does not share the confidence of the developers. “Miami has seen a century of boom and bust—the difference this time is that ‘starchitect’ names will be associated with some of the projects that go sideways.”

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