Miami-Dade’s Cultural Center, Built To Save Downtown 40 Years Ago, May Be Scrapped

In the late 1970s, Philip Johnson was America’s most famous and influential living architect, and what was then known as Dade County needed someone to design an iconic cultural center to help rescue a dying downtown Miami. The county turned to Johnson, who had played a leading role in the widespread adoption of Modernist architecture across the United States. But the fruit of their marriage did not turn out to be heaven-sent.

What the mercurial architect delivered for Miami was something no one expected: a neo-Mediterranean fortress of barrel-tiled library and museum buildings arranged around an enclosed and sun-scorched Venetian plaza, all of it elevated on rough-hewn, prison-like ramparts above the mean streets of downtown. It struck many as monumental and overdone and, at the same time, bland and subpar in its finishes and details. If few loved it then, fewer still love it now. The Miami-Dade Cultural Center brought Miami its first art museum and planted a fruitful seed for the city’s eventual cultural flowering. But the complex never delivered as intended, contributing little to — or even hindering — the downtown street life it was meant to engender. With entry requiring a climb up grand staircases or a long ramp along a channel of water — which no longer flows — the center’s plaza is today a dreary and shopworn space, populated mostly by the unhoused people who daily fill the soaring interiors of Miami-Dade’s Main Library building.

Now, barely 40 years after the ebullient fanfare that attended its 1983 dedication. the center may be on its way out. The site of the massive complex is a key piece in a far-reaching Miami-Dade plan to redevelop some 17 acres of public real estate in downtown Miami’s still largely blighted western end, with the goal of creating a dense, pedestrian-friendly high-rise neighborhood of apartments, offices and new civic facilities. The elaborate but still largely conceptual plan, released earlier this month, calls for full demolition of the cultural center, site of two buildings that house the HistoryMiami museum, as well as the county’s principal public library. Both would move into as-yet undefined new places in the neighborhood.

Miami-Dade officials say Johnson’s center has not only outlived its usefulness, but now stands as a misconceived obstacle in the long-sought, long-frustrated transformation of downtown Miami.

“It doesn’t work for the institutions it houses,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins, whose district includes downtown and who has spearheaded the redevelopment plan with County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “It’s inaccessible. It’s imposing, intimidating and dark. This is not a space that has worn well.”

Still, the death sentence for Johnson’s center, should it come to pass, may come as a shock to Miamians who recall the hopes invested in its development in the early 1980s.


The redevelopment plan is only the latest twist in the county’s long-running effort to resuscitate downtown Miami. Once the center of local life, the old downtown centered around Flagler Street hit a skid after suburban development exploded in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s, as part of the $530 million Decade of Progress bond program, county and civic leaders settled on a scheme to jump-start a downtown revival by building new civic and government complexes along the mostly derelict west end of Flagler Street, just east of the Miami River and Interstate 95.

The plan included a new county administration tower attached to a station for the new Metrorail and Metromover system, and a cultural center across the street to provide modern new homes for the main library and the privately run history museum, as well as an art exhibition hall.

The first such institution in the city of Miami, the Center for the Fine Arts was initially a museum without a collection, but later began acquiring art and became the Miami Art Museum. In 2013, MAM moved out of the cultural center to a new bayfront home and was renamed the Pérez Art Museum Miami. The HistoryMiami museum then expanded into the art museum’s adjacent galleries.

In selecting Johnson and longtime architectural partner John Burgee for the design, county officials and civic leaders thought they were getting a well-known quantity. Audacious and sometimes controversial — Johnson was a committed Fascist and Nazi sympathizer in the 1930s before reversing course — the architect was known for introducing to the United States and relentlessly promoting what he called the International Style, an unadorned, austere Modernism, first as the original director of the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture department, and later in his architectural practice. Johnson’s best known Modernist works include his own transparent home, the aptly named Glass House in Connecticut, MoMa’s sculpture garden and a pair of glassy trapezoidal towers, Pennzoil Place, in Houston. Johnson won the inaugural Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel, in 1979.


But unbeknownst to most, Johnson and Burgee were by then already embarked on a 180-degree turn to Postmodernism, an architecture that harkened to the past, incorporating elements and forms of historic building styles — sometimes ironically — in contemporary structures. Their AT&T Building in Manhattan, shaped like a highboy chest of drawers and designed around the same time as the Miami cultural center, caused a furor when it was completed in 1984. In Miami, Johnson, inspired by the Mediterranean buildings of Vizcaya, Coral Gables and Palm Beach, delivered a radical stylistic departure he called “neo-Traditionalist” — a slightly surreal composition of arches, colonnades and barrel-tile roofs. After initially balking, county commissioners approved the $23 million project, which opened in phases between 1983 and 1985. A Miami Herald article on the 1983 dedication of the plaza, which deliberately recalls Venice’s Piazza San Marco, quoted Johnson as saying he envisioned a “sequestered acropolis” where people would gather at tables to eat, read and relax.

That mostly never happened, for the most part because of a fatal flaw in the county’s original plan. To quell public fear of street crime and a burgeoning homeless population, the county envisioned new public buildings downtown connected above sidewalk level by pedestrian bridges. That conception never advanced beyond the cultural plaza, which was raised above a massive base containing staff parking and extensive storage areas, and connected by bridges to an adjacent parking garage and to ground level in front of the county tower. The bridges failed to draw the anticipated foot traffic to the sun-baked, hidden plaza. At eye level along Flagler and surrounding streets, what pedestrians see is foreboding. Angled walls punctured by occasional windows covered in wrought-iron grates and faced in rock finishes recall medieval prisons or the fortified villas of Florentine princes during the Renaissance.

And after four decades, it’s also become clear that the existing museum spaces and the tucked-away locale are inadequate for HistoryMiami, Higgins said. Foot traffic into HistoryMiami, which mostly draws organized school groups, is light at best. The museum’s two buildings are not connected, and Higgins contends the gallery spaces are too “cramped” to properly showcase Miami history and the institution’s growing collection of artifacts and historic and archaeological relics.


The museum’s board chair, attorney John Shubin, said the institution is ready and willing to work with the county on a plan for a new home, something he recognizes could take years. Though it receives financial support from the county, the museum is a nonprofit institution owned and run by an independent board.

“HistoryMiami is absolutely delighted to be recognized by the county as an important cultural institution that deserves a prime spot in a new and improved downtown Miami,” Shubin said in an interview. “We wish this process could travel from beginning to end in a short period of time, but we will remain patient and enthusiastic about a future home. We trust them and they trust us.”

In the meantime, he said, the museum will make its current home work.

“We believe that with the hard work of our team, we can continue to serve our community through our present location,” Shubin said.

When the center opened, local reaction was sharply polarized. A retrospective article by Marvin Aguilar published in in 2013 noted dryly: “The monumentality of the complex is both revered and disliked. In 1983, the Architectural Club of Miami released its lists for the best and worst new buildings in Miami. The poll taken by its members ranked the Center as fifth best and fifth worst.” Johnson would continue mining the historicist vein, and garnering praise and excoriation in equal measure, until the end of his career, which came only with his death at 98 in 2005. Outside Miami, though, the cultural center went largely and strangely unnoticed, rarely if ever appearing in books or articles about Johnson’s work. Johnson’s biographer, architectural critic Mark Lamster, has never seen the complex in person to this day, a reflection of the fact that it’s not considered an especially significant Johnson work.

Lamster, author of “The Man in the Glass House,” said the Miami center lacks the “anarchic energy” of his startling AT&T Building, now known as 550 Madison and a designated New York City historic landmark. “It’s certainly not on the list of his most important works; it’s not on the list of his most beloved works; and it’s not on the list on his most hated projects, either,” Lamster, architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, said. “It’s a project that did not attract a lot of attention.” The library building and its grand, soaring interior did have its fans. The Herald’s architecture critic at the time of the center’s opening in the 1980s, Beth Dunlop, gave the library building a mostly favorable review. But the overall complex, she recalled, got as “lukewarm” a review as she could muster given the civic enthusiasm for the project — and she doesn’t think it’s improved with age.


The library contains one undisputed gem — a circular frieze by California artist Edward Ruscha, known for his paintings of words floating over natural or surreal backgrounds, that’s regarded as one of the county’s finest and most valuable pieces of public art. For the library, Ruscha painted a quote from Hamlet on a series of panels with backgrounds of sky and clouds that run around the full circumference of an entry rotunda: “Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” it reads. Ruscha also painted 60 other word murals in wall arches throughout the library.

The 83-year-old Ruscha’s works, among the most highly sought-out in contemporary art, have sold at auction for as much as $52 million, meaning the library paintings are likely worth millions. Their preservation, careful removal and inclusion in a new library building will be a key county requirement, Higgins said.

“That’s one of the most important works of public art that we have,” she said. “Someone who’s smarter than me will figure out how to move it.” Ruscha’s murals aside, Dunlop said, the cultural complex failed to meet expectations. Even as its Mediterranean look hailed back to a time when workmanship and richness of materials were paramount, the center fell short on both, she said.

“I mourn the loss of many buildings, but I can’t make myself as upset about this as I should be,” Dunlop said. “The craftsmanship wasn’t there. The materials and the detailing were lackluster. In Miami, they hoped this would be an important building that put Miami on the map. But like so many things in Miami, they got a first-rate architect who did a second-rate building.”

In the end, though, Dunlop said the center failed because it turned its back on the streets of downtown, a posture that’s today at sharp odds with the preponderance of sidewalk-friendly new buildings suitable for urban life.

“It was very anti-urban in a downtown struggling to be urban,” Dunlop said. “We know so much more about how cities work now.”

Both Dunlop and Lamster coincide on one thing, though. The county’s redevelopment blueprint emphasizes sustainability and resiliency. But tearing down a massive building complex barely 40 years old is the opposite of that, they noted. They called it a colossal waste of what’s called “embodied energy” — the generated power that went into its construction — as well as materials that will go to overburdened landfills.

“The carbon footprint of just getting rid of all that concrete is very high,” Dunlop said. “That’s a whole heck of a lot of concrete. It’s problematic.”

Lamster hopes that the county or developers will opt to save it, even if no one rallies to save the center. It should be creatively put to new uses, adapted or added onto, and not simply destroyed, he said.

“We’re not talking one of the great landmarks of American architecture,” Lamster said. “But it’s sad to see a major work, at least in terms of scale, taken down. In terms of sustainability, taking down a big building is not ideal. Building anything is an extremely intensive action in terms of materials and the environment, and if you can save what you have, it’s always a lot better.”

But Higgins said demolishing the complex is, on balance, the only right option. That would free up the increasingly valuable land under the complex for much better and remunerative use under the county’s plan, helping generate enough new revenue to pay for a long wish list of public goods.

“By building a new museum and library, we will save the taxpayers money in the end. I get to raise revenue. Right now, all those acres are not producing anything,” she said. “And we will end up with a better library and museum.”

Source: Miami Herald