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Early Postmodernism: Philip Johnson's Miami Cultural Center

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Marvin Aguilar explores the history and architectural significance of the Miami-Dade Cultural Center in Downtown Miami

Just across NW 1st Street from Downtown Miami's Government Center is a monumental complex of historical proportions, the Miami-Dade Cultural Center. Fourteen feet above the sidewalk, one is immediately transported from the loud streets of the Magic City into a seventeenth century but oddly modern Spanish-Mediterranean-Italian Style plaza. Commissioned in 1972, but not completed until 1983, the Cultural Center marks an interesting place in its great architect, Philip Johnson's, oeuvre. Could the Miami-Dade Cultural Center be Philip Johnson's first postmodern building?

Johnson was inspired by great space, exotic allusion, and classical arrangements. However the Metro-Dade Cultural Center, though it boasts a lively history, is often overlooked by Johnson critics and architectural historians when compared to his most talked about buildings including his Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Connecticut, and the AT&T Building in New York. (1984, now the Sony Building), which is considered by many to be Johnson's first major postmodern building, despite being completed a year after the Cultural Center.

In 1972, when Johnson and his associate John Burgee (b. 1933)-along with associate architects Connell, Metcalf & Eddy-were selected after a nationwide search to design the Center, Johnson's name was synonymous with American modern architecture. Before practicing architecture, he was the founding Director of the Department of Architecture at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York. In 1932, he collaborated with architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1908-1987) and published the book The International Style-Architecture Since 1922 (a term attributed to both men) based on their European travels. The book evolved into an exhibition at MoMA that established an interest in modern architecture in America. Johnson later graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1943; worked with German master architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1950s; opened his architectural offices at the Seagram Building in New York City (a building done by Johnson and Mies van der Rohe) in 1958; and in 1968 began a partnership with Burgee and formed Johnson/Burgee Architects in Manhattan. Together the men designed noted buildings such as the AT&T Building in New York City and the Puerta de Europa, Madrid, Spain.

Fast-forward to 1972 when the Cultural Center got the okay to proceed with construction with funds from the Decade of Progress Bond. The Center was the realization of late Miami-Dade County Mayor Jack Orr's plan for a downtown cultural center; a meeting place for all the arts. The Historical Museum of Southern Florida (now HistoryMiami) would move from its Miami Science Museum location to its more spacious facility; the Center for the Arts (now the Pérez Art Museum Miami) was to host internationally renowned exhibitions; the Main Library, formally located at Flagler Street and Biscayne Boulevard, would have a three and a half times larger capacity for over two million books and would include an auditorium.

The Center also signified a move into Downtown Miami's much touted "Rebirth." Going into the 1980s, Miami was synonymous with tropical living. However, in the urbanized areas including Downtown, there was little to no cultural activity. Popular media had sensationalized the city's drug cartel, violence, and corruption. The Center, along with new downtown hotels, the new Knight Convention Center, and the Metrorail, were elements in massive effort to revitalize the Miami image and to generate tourism. Nevertheless, Johnson and Burgess's plan did not come without criticism. Miamians expected a modern-style building to stand unified with new Downtown architecture such as the Metro Administration Building or County Service Center. Yet the end result would be something a bit more traditional, or as Johnson referred, a "Neotraditional Design."

The Center was Johnson's first transitional building from modernism to postmodern. As early as the 1960s, architects and designers began moving away from the technologically advanced, functional buildings that defined the modern city to a philosophy concerned with aesthetic and complexity. Postmodern architecture combines history, context, and culture with irony and illusion. Thus postmodern buildings could be interpreted in multiple, even contradictory ways, to understanding their overall significance. Whereas modernism was puritanical in its ideals, postmodernism was cerebral and iconoclastic.

The three buildings that comprise the Center sit on a fourteen-foot-high parking garage. To compensate this grand elevation, the pastel-yellow painted walls are battered and faced with fossilized Texas limestone reminiscent of Florida's coral stone. Four entrances access the complex: a series of blocked stairs from Flagler street lead up to the library; two stair entrances from Northwest First Street, and a ramped colonnade walkway ramp from Northwest First Avenue. A broad water cascade flows parallel to this ramp leading to the entrance. The Flagler Street entrance is outlined with a tile-paved terrace with a double row of royal palm trees.

The true experience begins the second one walks into the Center's plaza. The pavement is decorated with tan and brick colored tiles. The creamy-yellow colored stucco walls complement the red terracotta tile rooftops. The plaza is decorated with multiple antique-style lampposts that add to the complex's majestic atmosphere. Black iron lanterns hang inside the library's colonnade facade. Johnson kept the Center as simplistic as possible, with its simple structural composition, minimal windowed buildings, and its rectangular proportioned spaces.

When initially asked to design the Center, Johnson ventured throughout Florida to look for inspiration. He toured Palm Beach where he admired the 1920s Spanish-Mediterranean Style architecture by Addison Mizner (1872-1933). Johnson also looked at the neoclassical Prussian architect Ludwig Persius (1803-1845). In South Florida, Johnson studied the architectural accomplishments of George Merrick's Coral Gables, the Freedom Tower, and James Deering's Italian-with-some-French-style mansion Vizcaya.

The Miami-Dade Cultural Center's much awaited dedication came in December 1983 but the two museums and library did not open until the following year. In fact, the complex was scheduled to open a year before but was set back due to a faulty design of the smoke evacuation system. Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Center's public grand opening.

A series of events promoted people to tour the new $41 million complex months before its facilities became public. Reactions were mixed. For the most part, visitors admired the processional experience walking up the ramp from the overwhelming metropolitan world into a quaint plaza that is reminiscent of Venice's Piazza San Marco. The monumentally 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. Some notable flaws are the bleak and unattractive surroundings on the building's east and west sides except for the rows of palm trees alongside the colonnade ramp entrance. The Metrorail tracks hover uncomfortably above visitors as they enter the complex. The complex is often referred to as a "fortress" because of its exclusivity, elevation, and unwelcoming exterior appearance that includes the wrought iron gates at each of the four entrances and steel grates that cover the windows along the street. While the plaza is ideal for receptions, there are no awnings or large areas of shade during the scorching summer months. The architectural transition from building to street is also criticized; it does not integrate naturally. But these flaws are rather small compared to Johnson's grand picture.

Johnson once said, "One cannot not know history." Johnson loved borrowing from other periods and manipulated historical architecture, just as much as he manipulated the architecture and architects of his own day, to his liking. He borrowed ideas from the Spanish-Mediterranean Revival Style, the Italian Renaissance, and the Moorish Revival and designed a building that truly speaks of South Florida's dynamic history and tropical ambience. Johnson dared to term his new design "Florida Regional Architecture," but is there something distinctly about the Center that makes it Floridian? The international presence in its arched windows and entrances, small porches, stucco walls, and terracotta roofs is undeniable. But similarly to the other buildings of Johnson and his predecessors, the Cultural Center acts as a reminder of centuries old architectural landmarks with a touch of modern aestheticism set against contemporaneous times.

The Glass House: "A Chapel In A Cathedral Of Nature", an exhibit of photographs (and a giant model) of Philip Johnson's famous home in New Canaan, Connecticut is at the Coral Gables Museum through Oct. 20th, and was the inspiration for this piece. Do check it out.