Once upon a time Miami was a place where neon crawled off to die. But now energised by the success of its art the city is rapidly becoming a capital of cultural cool. Andy Round reports.
By Andy Round
A gridlock of stretch limos, sports cars and stacked SUVs snake up to the Fontainebleau Hotel like an automotive beauty pageant. Clicking across the fluorescent blue floor lobby are long-legged girls in short dresses and high heels followed by hair-slicked guys with rolled sleeves and high hopes. Surveying the crowd are gorilla-sized ‘hosts’ in sharp suits and pneumatic hostesses barely wearing glittery dresses.
It’s Saturday night in Miami and I’m outside Liv, the hottest club in town, and it feels like a bizarre experiment in social engineering. There is no queue, no organised entry, just these hosts waving their iPads at the well-dressed herd and unclipping the velvet rope to those that they like the look of.
Inside this split-level, bass-shaking super club with its VIP glass cubicles, nose-bleedingly expensive drinks, velvet roped sofas and lines of Champagne are staff that look like supermodels slumming it between shoots. Depending on your attitude this is the most depressing two-dimensional Instagram experience of your life or the most exciting Saturday night to have ever wandered off the hot list of TMZ.
But it’s Miami right? This is where neon comes to die and everyone looks hot on the beach. Well, yes and no. Versions of Miami clubs like Liv have been around since the roaring ’20s when Miami was a magnet for Hollywood’s silent age superstars and New York’s freshly minted millionaires. It’s what I expected, what I didn’t expect was the way the city has reinvented itself as a capital of cultural cool. How about this for a role call of honour: Art Basel Miami Beach is one of the most important contemporary events in the world; the coolest hotels on earth march down South Beach; über fashion boutiques are materialising all over the city; Bilbao Guggenheim super-architect Frank Gehry has designed a new concert hall and some of the world’s most exciting galleries are springing up faster than you can say, “Isn’t that Damien Hirst?”
Tiles of the pool are plated with 24-carat gold
Even Versace has been reinvented. The former Ocean Drive home of the murdered couturier has just been transformed into an exclusive 10-suite boutique hotel by events impresario Barton G Weiss with rooms costing up to US$2,100 a night. Sam Garcia, a friend of a friend of the club lounge guy at The Ritz-Carlton, gives me a private tour (it’s closed to the public). “And the tiles of the pool are plated with 24-carat gold,” Garcia says with a smile as immaculate as his suit. “The work had to be redone three times before Mr Versace was happy.” I nod as a frock-tailed butler brings me a pot of Earl Grey. His accent, cut class British. “Perhaps some scones with fresh cream, sir?” Of course, thank you Jeeves.
Garcia’s grin widens as he then explains how the walkway to the beach would be carpeted with Versace towels to prevent pampered feet being burned on hot sand; where Elton, Linda and Naomi used to stay; how on Madonna’s 31st birthday the material girl’s cake was so huge they had to use a crane to haul it over the villa’s wall; and that the beds are so gargantuan (10 feet by 12 feet) that it takes three people to turn down the sheets…
It’s quite an insight, but a short stroll from the tourists photographing themselves outside the villa’s gates, is Miami’s newest altar to cultural cool, the New World Symphony Center. Overlooking a newly reclaimed public park, it’s designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry. This extraordinary building is the home of America’s Orchestral Academy, the New World Symphony. Gehry’s swooping architectural swirls are all in place here. But unlike his iconic Bilbao Guggenheim they are interior devices, the huge glass walls of the exterior and the giant white spaces are designed to tempt audiences in by revealing musicians through sky-high windows or by projecting their performances on exterior walls.
God's waiting room or a Scarface crime nightmare?
“The building and the new park in front really creates a landmark for Miami,” says Craig Hall of the NWS. “We are lucky it actually happened at all, but Gehry used to babysit Michael Tilson Thomas our founder and they grew up together to become close friends.” In addition to concerts, teaching musicians and exchanging techniques online live around the world, the center will also work actively to introduce classical music to the community through free shows, events with DJs and through schools.
It’s ambitious, exciting and light years away from the days when Miami Beach had become a place where the district’s famous art deco buildings were either hastily adapted into ‘god’s waiting rooms’ for America’s elderly or infested by small time wannabe Tony Montanas living a Scarface organised crime nightmare supplied by Pablo Escobar.
Now much of the city’s new energy is down to the success of Art Basel Miami Beach. Just nine years old it is one of the most dynamic contemporary arts events in the world. “In 2010 ABMB attracted a record 46,000 visitors,” says Basel’s Maike Cruse. “It’s getting bigger and bigger every year.” Next December (2011) 250 galleries are expected to exhibit works by at least 2,000 artists. “It’s a huge social scene and during the event nobody sleeps,” says Suzie Sponder of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And who wouldn’t want to leave Europe in winter to party in warm Miami?”
'Only place in the world where graffiti pushes property prices go up'
The event transforms the city. From the giant pink snail art installations that populated the beach when I visited to more long-standing developments such as the regeneration of formerly depressed districts like Wynwood. Dozens of galleries – such as the celebrated collections of Margulies, De La Cruz or Rubell – as well as numerous artists’ studios now occupy the low-rises and graffiti is commissioned from artists such as Shepard Fairey (the man behind the Obama ‘Hope’ image), and permanently displayed at the Wynwood Walls, a project of the super entrepreneur Tony Goldman. “I think this must be the only place in the world where you can put graffiti on the walls and the prices of property actually goes up,” laughs Johnny Wong, a curator at the nearby Peter Tunney Gallery.
New restaurants in the district such as Wynwood Kitchen & Bar conceived by Goldman’s daughter Jessica flaunt their edgy credentials and are stuffed to the rafters with cutting edge art, while a five-minute drive north brings you into the thriving ‘Designer District’ where fashionable independents such as Tushka Art Lampshade Studio, Unlimited Nude and Decorators Plumbing share block space with internationals such as Kartell, Christian Louboutin and The King is Dead. Unsurprisingly, the nearby college is Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior High.
Ah yes, architecture. With the highest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world, Miami is a photogenic delight and it still feels like you’re in a film set. And of course you are. Beyond the slip-ons and pastel shirts of the series Miami Vice here are the backdrops to Goldfinger, The Birdcage and just about any fashion shoot from the 1990s. “Photographers and film-makers have always loved the light around South Beach,” explains the Preservation League’s Kent Hamrick. “The beach and hotels were always perfect settings for drama.”
A beach theatre of board-riders, bikini girls and Cadillac fins
They still are. Take the Betsy, for example. This glorious colonial-plantation-house-looking boutique hotel offers probably the best Ocean Drive people watching potential in town (the BLT restaurant), chic seaside-feel rooms (with giant jars of jelly beans, art books and TVs in bathroom mirrors), a roof top bar (with a spa) and, wonderfully, during my visit an extensive show of iconic rock’n’roll photography (collections change regularly).
The art deco glory of the Ritz-Carlton, just an ice-cube’s throw away from the Betsy, offers a tanning butler (yes really and he has a smile the width of Miami Beach), a multi-million-dollar art collection (mainly Miros) and a boardwalk restaurant that is a front row seat to the passing beach theatre of rollerbladers, bikini girls, board-carrying lifeguards and assorted Segway riders, cyclists, skateboarders and joggers.
On my last night in Miami I follow the neon to the Delano where the lobby has been designed by Philippe Starck and the chairs are by Marc Newson, Man Ray and even Salvador Dali. It’s less frenetic than Liv and there are fewer famous basketball players, but popular activities still include wearing sunglasses at night, pretending to be a supermodel (or maybe not, was that really Eva Mendes?) and trying to catch the eye of the immaculate bar staff. Outside running the length of the huge pool are softly illuminated cabanas, dramatically lit palms and a moonlight night that can only be improved by the clink of ice in a drink. I ask for the cocktail menu.