Arquitectonica and Its Latin American Contribution to Modernism
Arquitectonica has refuted Koolhaas’ accusation that “Modern architecture had never achieved the promised alchemy of quantity and quality,” and Alistair Gordon’s enormous compendium of the firm’s work certainly disproves it.
But what of Rossi’s backhanded praise: “In America … quantity is quality!”? Although absolutely deserving of praise, the quantity of the work is not the basis for Arquitectonica’s achievement—even when associated with virtuosity of design. The importance of Arquitectonica derives from certain specific contributions to modern architecture in the United States.
Among them is diversifying the lineage. The firm’s modern architecture has nothing to do with that Germanic functionalism that idealized existenzminimum—a nostalgia for a future revolution now so degenerate that $10 million houses deploy minimalism as camouflage for the brutal inequality.
Not so Arquitectonica, whose antecedents did not cross the cold, gray North Atlantic but came up through the warm and sunny Caribbean, drenched in the sensuous, colorful, disrespectful, fun-loving modernism of Latin America. That such architecture is easier in the tropical climes of Miami does not diminish the achievement; nor that this influence was first explored by Morris Lapidus, whose brilliance seems to be dismissed everywhere but in the ateliers of Arquitectonica. Indeed, the cultural distance between Nordics and Afro-Hispanics could be considered one of the fundamental schisms of modern architecture in the New World. It would explain quite a lot …
Sensuality so permeates Miami that even the Swiss have succumbed! Herzog and de Meuron’s parking garage on Lincoln Road is a syncopated stack of decks so spatially audacious that they are leased for high-end parties and weddings. They are plazas hovering above the swamp landscape—late nights could not have been imagined or even “reimagined” within the iron curtain of the ETH or that of the GSD. Both this Lincoln Road garage and the University of Miami Dormitories, Lakeside Village, are the most culturally immersive buildings of Florida since the “Fountain Blue” hotel of 60 years ago.
The urban scale of the site allows the large dorm to do a skillful conga line around the campus context. The infinitude of little bedrooms are chunked into palazzo portions. Each, costumed with harlequin fenestration, disguises the repetitive program while eluding the numbing visuals. The design displays repetition without precision—that slack common in Latin America where measure is by ojimetro (ojo + metro: “measure by eye”), without the histrionic parametrics that fool no one about the banality of the program.
Contrast Arquitectonica’s reconciling of a singular function (student rooms) and the complexity of a pre-existing campus ambiente overcoming the problem with that now-reviled building type called the “Dallas Donut”: a perimeter block large enough to mask a big parking deck, but flattened by fire code to a steady six-story cornice. The result irritates the observer, who is assumed to be a visual idiot.
Another contribution to this type is the resuscitation of that malignant invention of modernism, the piloti—those stilts that raise buildings off the ground. The reputation of pilotis has been undermined by the false economy of a low ceiling with just enough clearance for parking the cars plus accommodation for the revolting pipes hanging above. The result is a kind of basement ambience so sordid that it bestows the building with the nickname “Dingbat.”
But at the University of Miami, Arquitectonica raised the pilotis to triple that minimum height. The ceiling above does not just disappear—it defines a kind of sublime wall-less nave (also to be experienced in their new Mr. C Hotel in nearby Coconut Grove). It is exhilarating to be in such a surprisingly tall space, which, backfilled with Geo’s scrum of landscape, is a delightful place for human activity. The observer passing through these hovering dormitories perceives neither impediment nor oppression, but rather a breezy, sunny freedom. And the cost? Just a few more feet of uninsulated column and a couple more flights of stairs. This involved a tiny budget supplement to yield so magnificent a place.
This result is a radical juxtaposition, not a blending, of two different types. Above is that bane of modern architecture, the repetitive program, which for the sake of both economy and function must be rectilinear and expressed as such. Below is the agile agglomeration of piercing routes and pools of space hyper-programmed for students, from barbers to cafés to volleyball. At the ground level, the building offers a picturesque shantytown urbanism, while the upper portion accommodates the serious program with mechanistic efficiency.
As requested, it serves as a recruitment engine for the university. But a more important contribution is being an urban type for those cities destined for climate-induced flooding. Miami is among them—but unthinkable to abandon. The prerogative of profits, proximity to the sea, and steamy nightlife will not accept exile to higher ground inland.
To this wicked problem, Arquitectonica offers a paradigm: the bulk of the program is to be held above the periodic flooding, while the ground level—small, dispensable appendages—may expect damage, then get refurbished after the water recedes. Being independent structurally, the loss would be a small portion of the overall building cost. These residential colleges thus contribute a general urban paradigm for a coming climate disaster that most accept but few truly engage.
Cities of the good life, like Miami, will persist near dangerous, delightful waterfronts. Arquitectonica’s model, shorn of penance, accepting the just punishment of climate change, shows that good times can still be had. How very welcome this should be!
This essay will appear as the Forward for a forthcoming book on Arquitectonica. All photos courtesy of the firm.