March 1st, 2000
The Miami Herald
Designing the Design
by Gail Meadows
Look up-up-up as you walk or drive along Northeast Second Street in Miami?s Design District, and you?ll see it. There, at the southeast corner with 39th Street: two giant portraits painted high above the street.
A building as canvas.
It?s the most visible sign of a move to turn the fashionable neighborhood into a sort of a open-air museum. Already, the Design District is decorated by some of the most striking ?public art? in South Florida.
And more is coming, owing largely to the efforts of Craig Robins, whose development company, Dacra, was a key player in the early days of South Beach?s renaissance and has been snapping up properties in the Design District - more the 15 buildings to date - making the company by far the biggest player in what?s being touted as a South Florida version of New York?s famous SoHo district.
Robins is a great believer in public art. It sets a tone, establishes an image, persuades others to live up to a certain standard, he offers.
?We?d like to build a unique aesthetic here,? he says of the district, which is about 10 minutes north of downtown Miami, sitting just west of Biscayne Boulevard and north of Interstate 195.
Once the exclusive domain of interior designers and decorators who did business only with ?the trade,? that is, others in the business, many stores in the area now welcome the public. Such chic merchandisers as Highlights (lighting) and Water Works (plumbing) have moved in, with Holly Hunt, the Manhattan designer showroom, on the way. In the works: restaurants, sidewalk cafes, residential lofts.
Quest for a certain look
It?s the kind of place that needs a certain look, says Robins.
And city officials agree. They made public art a key part of their plans when they sponsored a planning round-table in late 1997 called a charrette. The aim was to boost the then-struggling neighborhood.
DPZ, the well-known architecture firm led by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the architecture school at the University of Miami, and her husband, Andres Duany, led the effort. They came up with a plan that covered signs and parking and looked ahead to the addition of residential lofts to the business district.
Art that says, ?Hip?
And there would be art, too, big art, the kind that grabs people, the kind that cries, ?Hip!? There were fanciful visions of sculpture like A Family of Pencils?five, giant, colorful, ?designing? pencils that would stand at a Design District gateway.
?Liz?s idea,? says Robins, ?was that each building would have its own art.?
Usually, such public art is the domain of government?cities, counties, states. But Miami has no Art in Public Places program, nor does it have any money for such. Miami-Dade County, on the other hand, requires that 1.5 percent of the budget for new construction of public buildings go toward creating art; in Broward, it?s 2 percent.
But new public buildings weren?t going up in the Design District. So Robins looked to Los Angeles and other large cites where private entrepreneurs have begun to offer their own take on ?public art,? according to Vivian Rodriguez, director of the Miami-Dade County public art program.
A nationally recognized art collector, Robins, 36, began to issue his own commissions and display pieces that he had collected over
Huge fabric portraits
Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt of Miami Beach, veterans in the field of public art, had taken part in the planning charrette and come up with the Pencils idea. Robins hired them to paint the huge portraits for the Buick Building at 3841 NE Second Ave.
?Once a year, we?ll put a new image up there,? Marquardt says. ?You can change them out.?
Up since spring, the portraits are of ?popular heroes no one ever heard of,? Marquardt says -Makandal, an African slaveholder in French Colonial Haiti in 1750, and La Malinche, a daughter of Aztec lords in Mexico.
Arriving next week will be a bronze fountain designed by artist Kenny Scharf. Crafted in New York, it?s 12 feet tall and is to be placed in the plaza of the Buena Vista Building at 180 NE 39th St.
At the entry to his office in the Melin Building at 3930 NE Second Ave., indoors but open to the public, Robins placed The Gondola Shoe, a glittery, towering fabrication by artist Antoni Miralda. It?s a symbol of Venice and all the fantasies that a honeymoon destination embodies, according to Robins? official description of the work.
Another example of the developer?s view of public art: a series of vividly colored floor tiles indoors and out that connects three buildings along Northeast Second Avenue.
?We?re trying to create a look that says this district is of a piece, ? he says.
New rooftop sculpture
By next spring, to further solidify the image, he hopes to have in place dramatic new sculpture atop a building in the northwest corner of 40th Street and North Miami Avenue. Commuters on I-195 would see the new display as they whiz to and from Miami Beach.
?It?ll be huge, oversize, concrete furniture, visible from the expressway,? Robins says.
First, two of the building?s walls must by extended 30 feet into the air. Then, a ?window? will be created to open to the sky; and then faux ?wallpaper? will be added. Again, artists Marquardt and Behar are to do the work.
?I think what he?s doing is great,? Rodriguez says of Robins.
Dena Bianchino, a Miami assistant city manager who has worked to boost the district, also likes what she sees.
?My husband and I were there Sunday, walking around and looking, and it was just great,? says Bianchino.
It?s important, says Robins, that art is out in constant public view.
?Can you imagine what would have happened to art through the centuries if only art dealers had been allowed to see it??