An Introduction to MiMo

Miami Modern Revealed

Randall Robinson

Ever since Ponce de Leon sought the Fountain of Youth in 1513 near present-day Saint Augustine, newcomers have sought to inscribe their personal mythologies on Florida’s mutable landscape. Before Walt Disney turned central Florida wholly over to fantasy with the Magic Kingdom, South Florida had Miami, the Magic City, so named because it became a city almost overnight, without having been a town.

In Miami especially, reality begins with a dream. Julia Tuttle, known as “the mother of Miami,” one of a handful of women credited with a role in founding a major American metropolis, dreamed of transporting the civilization of her native Cleveland to the subtropics, a Cuyahoga on Biscayne Bay. In 1895, she enlisted the help of one of the world’s richest men, Henry Flagler, who had already made his fortune as cofounder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller but dreamed of linking mainland Florida into a railroad empire running across the water to Key West. It was an engineering feat considered impossible at the time.

The peculiar dementia that seizes the newcomer to Florida takes the form of real-estate fantasies. In 1926, a wayward aviator named Glenn Curtiss, who got rich manufacturing Flying Jenny airplanes during World War I, conceived of the Arabian Nights–themed development of Opa-locka north of Miami with miniature Moorish castles set on impossible-to-navigate concentric streets with names like Bagdad and Ali-Baba. Even the state anthem, “The Swanee River (Old Folks at Home),” was penned by a man, Stephen C. Foster, who never set foot there.

MiMo, shorthand for Miami Modern, coined by Randall Robinson and Teri D’Amico, refers to the Mid-century Modern Architecture that flourished in South Florida from 1945 until the late 1960s. MiMo is the manifestation of a dream, post–World War II American society’s faith in progress and a future that rolled ahead endlessly like a shiny new stretch of Interstate. As multifaceted as South Florida itself, MiMo is not a single style, but rather a confluence that includes the world-renowned resort glamour of Morris Lapidus, the sublime Subtropical Modernism of Igor B. Polevitzky, and the flamboyant Latin infusion of Enrique Gutierrez, the architect of one of the Southland’s Modernist masterpieces, the Bacardi USA building. The common denominator is a time — the heady decades after the war — and a place — the Subtropical environs of South Florida.

MiMo is made up of as many strands as a jungle liana, but can be divided into two major branches, the fantasy Resort MiMo of Miami Beach and Subtropical Modernism, an adaptation of the International Style to the local climate.

Resort MiMo is dominated by the towering figure of Morris Lapidus, whose lavishly ornamented hotel interiors were created as backdrops for the make-believe films that newly successful Americans imagined their lives could be like. Despite, or perhaps because of, its popular appeal, Resort MiMo was considered something of an embarrassment by the architectural establishment, and Lapidus did not gain critical acclaim until long after his working career.

Even a half-century later, Lapidus’s Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels still exert a fascinating appeal. But resorts are only the best-known face of MiMo. In the same period, inventive Modernists like Igor Polevitsky, Robert Law Weed, and Robert Little sought to adapt the austerity and other signature elements of Mies van der Rohe’s International Style to the local environment in a loosely federated school of Subtropical Modernism. This group of architects led the Miami chapter of the American Institute of Architects and their work was well represented in its monthly publication, Florida Architect, which Polevitsky happened to edit.

Other Subtropical Modernists included Marion Manley, the first licensed female architect in Florida, who, along with Weed, defined Subtropical Modernism at the University of Miami in Coral Gables just after World War II. Alfred Browning Parker and Kenneth Treister, who identify themselves as spiritual descendants of Frank Lloyd Wright, trained at the University of Florida and integrated elements of Wrightian organic architecture into their commercial buildings as well as their considerable residential practices.

Wright’s legacy took a more populist form in Miami, notably in ubiquitous two-story apartment-motels by Gilbert M. Fein and others, who found an expressive demotic vocabulary in free-style adaptations of Wrightian elements like faux gabled roofs, built-in planters, and stone pylons.

MiMo covers all forms of Modernism from high to low. Miami’s counterpart to the Modernist coffee-shop creations of Los Angeles, known as Googie, is the Pop Art iconography of Motel Modern in Sunny Isles, north of Miami Beach and on Biscayne Boulevard.

The broad and varied spectrum of Miami Modern was a natural, if sometimes jarring, progression from the local Modernist architecture of the 1930s. Tropical Art Deco, an inexpensive local synthesis of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne, offered tourists a unified backdrop of Modernist lines, modernized decoration, and colorful stage-set-like lobbies. Meanwhile, the International Style, in which decoration was anathema and the functional expression of structure and materials was a virtue, made limited but notable appearances in what was still at heart a provincial outpost.

Postwar prosperity put Modernism on a collision course with the public’s desire for luxury and display. Art Deco was old hat, but the mass market would never accept the idea that less was more. The fecund and fearless imagination of Morris Lapidus wrote the recipe for Resort MiMo in his iconoclastic Fontainebleau in 1954. The public embraced his academic heresies of highly ornamented interiors, stairways to nowhere, and columns that didn’t support anything.

Resort MiMo is a quintessential product of the 1950s and 1960s, reflecting all the stylistic influences of the era, including lavish Hollywood sets, automobile styling, and the space race. It was driven by the same kind of market economics that drove the production of cars and consumer goods, where the premium was on newer, bigger, and better. As with cars, profits depended on the principle of dynamic obsolescence, pioneered by General Motors’ design genius Harley Earl, in which newness was determined by stylistic innovation rather than technological advance.

Staying ahead of consumers’ insatiable appetite for novelty required a healthy dose of futurism, as expressed in the space age styling of the 1950s, which became an American obsession after the Russians launched the bleeping beach-ball-sized Sputnik satellite into orbit in the fall of 1957. The American fascination with speed that manifested itself in streamlined design in the 1930s was updated to keep pace with the delta- and swept-wing design of military jets. Applied symbols of acute angles, boomerangs, and trapezoids capitalized on the new shape of speed and ran like a leitmotif through MiMo iconography.

Some innovations did represent new technologies: the measured use of glass before the war gave way to double-height plate-glass walls as budgets increased and both glass-production methods and the ability to control the environment with central air-conditioning improved. But other developments were sheer style: the eyebrow features that once sheltered windows from the sun and dripping rain were plastically extended horizontally and vertically to become design elements in their own right. Art Deco symmetry was abandoned for more kinetic asymmetrical compositions, following contemporary trends in visual art. The sheer energy and creativity of the designs reflected the excitement as the center of the art world shifted from Europe to America.

Excess was taken for granted in Resort MiMo. “Let’s just say you like ice cream,” the maestro Lapidus said by way of an analogy. “Why have two scoops of ice cream? Have three scoops.” Resort MiMo loaded three scoops on everything. Lapidus designed his over-the-top resorts for the masses of upwardly mobile Americans, accustoming themselves to luxury for the first time in their lives. “I designed what I do for them,” Lapidus said, “the immensity of a meaningless lobby, the overabundance of beautiful antiques, the feeling of great opulence. When they walk in they do feel, ‘This is what we’ve dreamed of, this is what we saw in the movies, this what we imagined it might be.’ ”

The door to the less fanciful Subtropical Modernism was opened by Robert Law Weed with his highly influential concrete-and-glass Florida Tropical Home, built for the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. Its squared-volume composition with double-height, glass-walled living space to maximize air circulation, and its minimal decoration were a portent of the stripped-down postwar manner.

Subtropical Modernism arrived in South Florida with Weed’s and Marion Manley’s vision for the University of Miami campus in 1945, the first Modernist campus in the United States. Weed and Manley brought together under the Miami sun the machine aesthetic and functionalism of High Modernism with the earthy, modern American quality of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright’s influence was pervasive in MiMo residential and commercial architecture. The rootedness in the landscape and incorporation of natural elements of his Taliesin West and the rustic yet High Modernist design of Fallingwater appealed to Americans’ sense of national pride and desire for informal living. Architectural pattern books disseminated the surface motifs of Wright’s work to countless apartment motels and suburban housing tracts in South Florida.

The task of adapting Wright’s tenets to the unique conditions of South Florida was embraced fully by a group of idealistic architects known as the Coconut Grove School. A section of Miami that predates the founding of the city, Coconut Grove had been a haven for bohemians, intellectuals, and artists since the 1880s. This milieu was fertile ground for the ecologically harmonious, handcrafted Subtropical Modernism of Alfred Browning Parker, Rufus Nims, Kenneth Treister, and others.

Subtropical Modernism’s International Style and Wrightian aesthetics were in sharp contrast to Resort MiMo. Like Wright’s Prairie Houses and Taliesin West, the glass walls, low-slung lines, flat roof with wide eaves, and free-flowing interior spaces of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion of 1929 made a potent model for the flat minimalist landscape of South Florida. However, High Modernism also influenced vernacular architecture. Gordon Bunshaft provided a paradigm of how to fuse mural art with glass walls for countless motel lobbies from Sunny Isles, Florida, to Wildwood, New Jersey, with his vibrant Venezuelan Pavilion for the 1939–40 World’s Fair.

Subtropical Modernists devised a wide-ranging vocabulary of sun-protection devices to shield glass-enclosed, air-conditioned interiors from the scorching South Florida sun. Edward Durell Stone’s experimentations with masonry ornament, particularly the perforated screen-block panels of his US Embassy in New Delhi of 1958, were influential around the world, but found a special resonance in South Florida.

Because Subtropical Modernism was built to serve the needs of the year-round population, rather than just the winter tourist trade, the buildings were fully adapted to South Florida’s hot, wet summers. Instead of employing air-conditioning as yet another object of conspicuous consumption the way the resorts did, architects designed breezy corridors and courtyards with shaded, covered galleries to supplement air-conditioned interiors and maximize use of the generally mild climate. Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation of 1947–52 in Marseilles was a seminal influence as was the heroic Modernism of Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil.