Tim Abrahams

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Miami Beach, the world’s best parking spot

The Economist January 2017

Car parks are rarely well-designed. Even more rarely do they amount to “design”: something to enjoy on a purely aesthetic level. However, in Miami Beach, Florida, the car park has become not just a building type that is visually pleasing, but something else entirely: a set piece that offers architects the chance to show off.

Mr Faena felt that the development needed an above-ground car park, to be “a statement
Perhaps because the city has expanded rapidly as a travel destination, its new hotels are invariably disappointing dumb citadels of glass and steel that dominate the city’s charming old art-deco look apparently on purpose. Most galleries and museums are soulless, too, the glamorous veranda of the Pérez Art Museum notwithstanding. Miami is largely built on sand or swamp and has a high water-table, making subterranean parking expensive; building above ground is a better option.

The first building to turn this inconvenience into a design opportunity was the evocatively titled Ballet Valet. Arquitectonica, a local firm, had established itself in the 1980s with a series of brash, colourful apartment blocks that were immediately snapped up as sets for “Miami Vice”, a television series, and “Scarface”, a Cuban gangster epic. Asked in the following decade to create a car park that would add something to a block of boutique shops, Arquitectonica adapted its garish palate to the more sensitive 1990s by wrapping the building in a fibreglass mesh with an irrigation system, and filling it with indigenous clusias and sea lettuce, which ran riot.

Ballet Valet might have remained a one-off were it not for the arrival of Art Basel in Miami Beach. When one of the largest art fairs in Europe was seeking to expand into America it made an inspired choice. Art was popular there, both among the American celebrity set, who had taken to Miami Beach as a place to party, and among the wealthy Latin Americans who saw the city as both their home and their financial base in America. There were only a handful of galleries, however. Entering into the art-led regeneration of Miami Beach, the car parks are in many ways monuments to the success of that relationship, creating spaces that enable commerce and art to exist side by side.

Car parks put developers at the centre of upcoming areas. Herzog and de Meuron, a Basel firm that also specialises in museums, completed 1111 Lincoln Road in 2010. A ziggurat of bare concrete linked by precipitous ramps, it provides accommodation for a series of art-crowd-friendly shops on the ground floor and a home for the developer, Robert Wennett, on the roof. This giddy stack of concrete cards set a benchmark for audacity, its upper deck providing stunning views and one of the most sought-after party spaces during Art Basel Miami Beach. From this example, the high-end car park became firmly established.

In November, as part of a new six-block development in the mid-Beach area, Alan Faena, an Argentine developer, revealed his parking garage (pictured). It boasts a glazed side elevation that exposes the robotic car elevator, which installs and retrieves cars from closely stacked shelves: a preparation for the dance performances in the Faena Forum arts centre to which it is appended. The car park actually only provides room for around 100 cars (though there are 300 subterranean parking places beneath the development). Yet still Mr Faena felt that the development needed an above-ground car park, to be “a statement”. He had his designed, like the adjacent arts centre, by OMA, the fashionable firm founded by Rem Koolhaas.

Soon the designer car park will breach the borders of the Beach into the wider metropolitan area. Later this year in downtown Miami, Terence Riley, a former curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, will open an 800-car garage that will be clad in a crazy collage of different façades designed by five of the world’s trendiest practices. Although Miami has no more cars per person than the rest of America, it is still hugely car-dependent. The competition among developers to build the most extravagant or most striking take on an otherwise dull building is typical of Miami’s peculiarly intimate glamour.