Posted August 18th 2010 at 12:45 pm by
in Miami Urban Think Tank Series

Finding the Mediated City

MUTT (Miami Urban Think Tank), is composed by a group of residents who actively meet to read, write and discuss Miami’s urbanism. The goal of MUTT is to provide a forum where professional values, critical thinking, and everyday experience shape analysis and action. MUTT advocates a productive engagement between theory and practice, underlining the value of the city of Miami as a location for learning, research and progressive change.

Over the next month, the MUTTs, as their members are known, will write several posts exploring the formation, thought and practice of of MUTT.


When Miami was founded over 100 years ago, several key developers saw the area’s potential for tourism, and Miami was imaged and imagined as an immaculate resort city, a sort of Riviera of the Americas. Both postcards from the early twentieth century and the dominance of a Mediterranean revivalist architecture present a modernist pastiche. By the post-World War II era, an international modernist aesthetic became more dominant, with the architecture conforming both to the sub-tropical environment of Miami and the needs of the tourism and real estate sectors. However, the luxurious image of Miami existed alongside paradoxical realities of the then segregated South, creating an urbanity hostile to its African American, Bahamian and Jewish populations.  Growing rapidly and haphazardly, Miami had to brand an image that appealed to tourists as a tropical escape while recognizing the ever-changing needs of its yearlong residents.

Icon Brickell_Small

View of the Icon Brickell from the North Bank of the Miami River.

Miami today has inherited the concerns of the past while aspiring towards global stature. It is stereotyped as an image-conscious city of vacuous glamour, and various popular television programs and movies have contributed to creating this identity. The glass and concrete high-rises that line our waterfronts speak to Miami’s early identity as a spectacular resort city, albeit urbanized. The large influx of Cuban exiles hugely impacted the metropolitan area’s development, as did future waves of Caribbean and Latin American immigrants. While pleasure and fantasy have always impacted architectural and artistic production in Miami since it’s founding, our “globality” – that being our city’s role in global commerce on the global stage – became a dominant, progressivist theme in both private development and public policy.

Our perceived globality is undoubtedly influenced by the city’s exceptional growth these past few decades, particularly in the private sector. As a growing place of commerce, transport and international trade, city officials and citizens have emphasized the need to build urban infrastructure that reflects our ascent.  In his book Spaces of Global Culture scholar Anthony King explores the relationship between visual culture and the city, engaging with the phenomenon of the skyscraper. Interested in the manner in which buildings and discourse around buildings impact our personal imaginaries, King presents three theoretical inquiries of significance to the context of Miami: that of spectacular architecture, that of buildings serving as signs of modernity, and that of the discourse of spectaluarity (i.e. claims for the tallest building in the world). The city, globally, seems to have formed into a spectacle, where power via the economy and the state project themselves impressively onto the urban landscape.  This speaks to popular discourse in Miami, where the push to build a world class city has resulted in a massive performing arts center, the movement of public museums, and a strong identification with the form of the skyscraper.

Among the most iconic buildings in South Florida from the past decade is the massive Icon Brickell, which is comprised of three towers ranging from fifty to fifty-eight stories.  Proclaimed a Monument of Excess by the New York Times, the $1.3 billion project defies imagination.  Designed by the well-regarded Miami-based firm Arquitectonica, the towers are less overtly flashy than some of their Arquitectonica contemporaries – 500 Brickell and OneMiami.  These two developments use color and form to seemingly reference the area’s urbanism and tropicality.  Icon Brickell’s presence, on the other hand, is imposing upon its urban context and its tropical environment.  The dark glass panes are broken up and defined by a white grid; the skyscraper form is used to create a mini-metropolis of glamour, the uneven grids in communication much like a complicated network.   Its developer-par-excellence, Related Group’s Jorge Perez, himself seems smug despite a sluggish economy as the construction of Icon seems to be a true feat; a symbol of our global aspirations.

Maoi Figures Maoi figures decorating the main entrance of the Icon Brickell designed by Phillippe Starck.

Perhaps the most outrageous feature are the hundreds of twenty two-foot metal columns that are sculptural replicas of the famed moai of Easter Island.  The monolithic, imposing moai figures, believed to represent male ancestors with political and religious power and authority in Chile’s Easter Island, have transformed identities in the urban context of Miami.  They take the viewer from ethnic kitsch to ethnic chic, providing a dramatic horizontal sway that counters the complex’s verticality.  Their appropriation vacates them of any of their original meaning, with little to no reference to the Rapanui people and their traditions.  Nonetheless, the current information age has allowed the figures to appear familiar to the general public and to serve an aesthetic purpose.  The Miami moai may also be transformed by the viewer.  Walking by the colonnade with a friend one day, she noted, “Look, those are the orishas.”  Suddenly I noticed that the moai slightly resemble images of Eleggua, the Santería deity of the cross-roads, that are created in concrete with cowrie shells.

Miami Circle Miami Circle archeological site.

It is fitting that adjacent to Icon Brickell is the new Miami Circle Park.   Developer, Michael Baumann purchased the site in 1998, and he had intended to build a much larger condominium project in its place.  During an archeological survey, various holes were found, forming a thirty-eight-foot diameter circle in the limestone bedrock, and archeologists acknowledged it as the most significant find of Miami’s former inhabitants, the Tequesta Indians [AM1].  After protests by activists locally and nationally, the city worked to purchase the site from Baumann for over $20 million.  The Miami Circle controversy made apparent various tensions in Miami, particularly in regards to our development practices and cultural identity.  The controversy regarding the Miami Circle compelled the city to look deeper into its history.  The creation of a park will contain the circle and encourage visitors to engage with the circle.  Today, however, the moai stare out from within viewing distance of the circle and its surrounding park, still very much in construction.  Like ancient ruins, the Miami Circle stands at the mouth of the Miami River as a symbol of New World origins, while Icon stands above as a sort of fantasy about our globality.


King, Anthony D. Spaces of Global Culture: Architecture, Urbanism, Identity. London: Routledge, 2004.

Photos by Fredo Rivera.

Fredo Rivera is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at Duke University and a Research Affiliate at the School of Architecture, University of Miami.  He is currently conducting dissertation research on 1960s Havana, Cuba and developing research on art, globalization and urban visual culture in Miami.

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