Miami Modern Metropolis: Paradise and Paradox in Midcentury Architecture and Planning

Author:

Robert Steuteville

Article Type:

Resources

New Urban News
Issue:

Jul-Aug 2010

Issue Date:

Thu, 2010-07-15

Page Number:

13

Volume:

15.5

Edited by Allan T. Shulman
Balcony Press, 2010, 414 pp, $85 hardcover

Miami Modern Metropolis begins in earnest after World War II, when Miami Beach, the most striking and appealing place in southeast Florida, was already well under way. Miami Beach’s pattern of pedestrian-oriented streets was set, fronted by Deco and Moderne buildings. On the mainland, the city of Miami also had a downtown, a historic African-American neighborhood called Overtown, and new suburbs mostly for whites, like Coral Gables, built by “town founders” like George Merrick. Miami’s reputation as a fantasy playground for America had stuck in the public imagination, but the metropolis was still relatively small and human-scaled.

In the period from 1945 to 1975, when the population more than quadrupled, much of that human scale was swept away — especially in Overtown, deemed a good site for highway construction and urban renewal. This book tells the story of a city that was overrun by sprawl, much like America as a whole. But the dream, and the images that sold it, are hypnotic. If you want to understand sprawl and why America was so taken by it, Miami Modern Metropolisoffers plenty of insight.

Visit the Miami area today and you’ll discover that the best parts — like Miami Beach and Coral Gables — were largely built prior to World War II. The promise of the 1950s, on the other hand, has soured. The tract housing that was supposed to provide a better life for most families has turned into sprawl. Much of the industrial park activity has been shipped overseas. Shopping centers and modern buildings have not aged so well. Miami is no longer America’s fantasy playground.

Yet for a shining period covered in this book, the future looked really, really bright — if you didn’t happen to be African-American. This is the suburban, modern America Dream at its purest and most potent. The photographs show no age or wear, and present the designs in their best light, at the best time. The downside of all of this growth was not apparent at that time to most people. In the middle of the 20th Century, Miami’s architects, builders, and most of its citizens were on a roll.

Miami Modern Metropolis is visually lavish. The images are so strong that the reader is led to flip through the book again and again, reading the captions and devouring the photographs and renderings. This book has a lot of text, structured as a series of essays by many writers. Some of the writing is vivid, like the chapter on highways by Kara Wood.

There are illuminating passages: “The car, tract home, and TV set, far from simply constituting the booty of an economic boom, were symbiotically linked artifacts of a middle-class lifestyle revolution made possible through an increasingly even distribution of national wealth — once the basis for federal economic policy, now yet another quaint and nostalgic aspect of America’s postwar modernity,” writes Greg Castillo in an essay.

Miami Modern Metropolis examines some of the major plans for Miami during this period. A plan for downtown by the renowned Greek town planner and architect Constantinos Doxiadis is held up as the apogee of planning for Miami during this period. It is probably better than a lot of plans from that time. Yet the aerial view of the plan, from the mid-1960s, shows what would have been a numbingly repetitive series of glass box towers on the waterfront. The plan was ultimately shelved, probably to the city’s benefit.

The book coincides with “the lowest ebb of planning culture in American history,” notes Jean-Francois Lejeune in one essay. In Miami this “resulted in undifferentiated and rampant sprawl,” he says. There were flashes of good sense, such as the town center for the 1960s Miami Lakes master-planned community, which remains walkable to this day. The conversion of Lincoln Road in Miami Beach to a pedestrian mall created a place that is appealing still. But these were exceptions.

Coherent urban planning in Miami was ultimately pushed aside in favor of a vague vision of a better future through high-speed travel and modern design. To buy into that vision completely, the city willingly gave up the street and the human scale. It was a Faustian bargain.