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T E X T B Y W M . H A R T H U R I V
Behind South Florida’s Mid-Century (MiMo) Design Scene
In the years following the second world war, the industries of hospitality, construction and real estate were among those that benefited greatly from South Florida’s post-war boom. Fueled by a precipitating population and a disproportionate share of the nation’s optimism, South Florida was propelled into being one of America’s most-familiar destinations and greatest economies. Within the first ten years, South Florida had eschewed its sleepy resort-town beginnings and had become a burgeoning metropolis of lavish waterfront hotels and surfeit of individualistic single-family homes. Behind the screen of success and glowing international popularity, the region also developed a unique enclave for modernist architecture of the international style. The style was so unique it was later coined (MiMo), an acronym of “Miami Modernism”. The style brought notoriety to the region in the following decades, and a sort of regional authenticity. South Florida achieved this in part, by creating an allure for young architectural students immediately after the war.
Of those who descended upon South Florida at the time— mainly discharged military personnel, growing transportation and tech industries, as well as retirees from northern states. South Florida had a well-calculated allure. It attracted audiences through billboards, magazines, brochures and television. Television became the most important as it best captured the character and charm of South Florida, transposing it to a national audience that was easily captivated by the area’s relative exoticism. Among the young architectural students most intrigued by this were those enrolled in the avant-garde schools. Students studying modernism in universities such as Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois— my grandfather, William H. Arthur III among them. Dissemination of South Florida’s architectural culture was relatively prolific in the nation and it was Time Life Magazine’s June 5, 1950 issue featuring Igor B. Polevitzky’s Birdcage House” that attracted my grandfather to South Florida the most. Built on Miami’s Venetian Islands, the article featured photos of the home and briefly explained how the architect wanted to create a space for outdoor living through disambiguation of its exterior envelope.
Students at the University of Illinois read the article, but already knew of the nascent architectural community brewing in South Florida and the unique buildings it was cultivating along its waterfronts. With an interest in working with Polevitzky specifically, my grandfather learned that the architect would be visiting his university as part of a lecture series. He also learned that Polevitzky was an avid fan of then-emerging music composer Igor Stravinsky, whom luckily for my grandfather, was participating in the University’s music program. My grandfather purchased two tickets to a concert featuring Stravinsky and pitched Polevitzky for a job. He then moved to Miami and worked as Polevitzky’s assistant for the next twelve years.
In South Florida 1950, the new population consisted of automobile-philes and strong sentiments for self-mobility. Determined to live in estate-style, single-family homes, shop in the most elegant stores and leisure in the most imaginative hotels, my grandfather noted that the population had an insatiable appetite for diversity. This was reflected in its demand for design talent which made requirements for new-coming architects challenging. New architects and draftsmen were only able maintain employment if they learned quickly and adapted well to high-demand work environments.
On-going civil projects of the region further capitulated a burden onto these architects. In Miami for example, the city disbanded its downtown in the late 1950s and urban growth began to radiate into several different patterns. This exacerbated needs for unique housing and retail solutions while applying significant stress on the ability of architects and planners to implement effective plans. As a result of their partial failures, areas of the city began to polarize, particularly in the residential sector where government subsidies had an unintentional effect of standardizing homes, further distinguishing certain neighborhoods from their privately-funded counterparts. As competition and distinction increased, so did developers’ demands for outstanding locales. This mechanism further prompted the needs for architects to create the latest and most-competitive attractions. Their responses resulted in some of the nation’s most innovative and successful accomplishments in retail design known at that time.
With an emerging tourism market also shining upon South Florida, there became a competitive industry in hospitality. As each hotel or resort was built, it seemed a newer emerged, and often next door or even by the same architect as in the case of the Fontainebleau of Miami, built 1954 and its neighboring Eden Roc, built 1955. Such happenings drew additional endeavor from architects, as developers became only willing to invest in the best talents he or she knew existed. The built environment began to emerge as competitively as it did rapidly, and not just physically but also culturally. Firms of the period responded satisfactorily to this demand by providing new and stimulating architecture, much to the credit of eclectic personalities such as Morris Lapidius, who believed in applying ideas of carnivality and spotlight to his firm’s hotel designs.
Most of the drafting tables of the Lapidius office, like the other firms of South Florida, were manned with young architects and draftsmen, who found themselves working long hours and developing a strong dedication to the city. Constantly thinking of ways to thrill their clients and make their designs more exciting, the
architectural community grew increasingly collaborative. Through long discussions, which often took place at supper clubs, dinner parties and social events, architects were constantly pinning new ideas to each other outside the office. Favorite hang-out spots included the Red Coach Inn, once located along Miami’s Biscayne Blvd hosting “the Longest Bar In the World”. Igor Polevitzky would famously order the house prime rib while my grandfather, scoured the menu for something more affordable. Eager to attend the same social events, he and my grandmother later admitted to arriving at restaurants with a can of beans heating under the hood of the car and eating them in the parking lot just so they could be part of the discussion without ordering something expensive.
Some of the discussions led to highly-intellectual discourse and this contributed to the community’s desire to build its own academic programs for architecture, a long-standing goal of South Florida as originally envisioned by George Merrick. First, the University of Miami revamped its previous architecture program immediately after the war. Then a new kind of university, Florida Atlantic University, was built twelve years later with my grandfather elected to its board of directors. The creation of the schools had an interesting effect of increasing the introversion of South Florida’s architectural community, which in-turn contributed to the uniqueness of the international style it is now recognized and admired for.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s hatred for South Florida’s enclave was well-known, while attention and praises from other worldly designers such as Clarence S. Stein, author of Towards New Towns for America and Le Corbusier, the pronounced leader of modern architecture were less publicized. As the slowing of the post-war boom in South Florida drew nearer, an economic event known as the “Flash crash of 1962” brought an intermittent slow-down to construction. With a simultaneous influx of new architects arriving to South Florida via the Cuban diaspora, the two events forced many of the original post-war firms to reorganize, disband or retire. Since restructuring, few sentiments of the original architectural practices of South Florida remained. ∎
Igor B. Polevitzky (left), his son (center) and friends at poolside 1953.
Credit: Florida Photography.©
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WILLIAM HAMILTON ARTHUR ARCHITECT, INC.
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William is a researcher of Mid-Century Miami architecture and 3rd-geneartion practitioner, designing from a perspective that is both
culturally and historically-minded— an approach that earned him the AIA Henry Adams Medal in 2011.
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