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12/29/03 - Miami Herald

Architecture guide drafts community collaboration

By Andres Viglucci

From New York to San Francisco, Barcelona and Amsterdam, just about any great city worth its salt has something Miami doesn't: a comprehensive guide to its architecture.

Planner and activist Randall Robinson has decided to fix that.

With the support of two friends and a few small grants, Robinson has prepared a draft of what he hopes will become the definitive guide to Miami's most significant buildings and places.

Only he needs help.

The draft, with 196 entries so far, merely scratches the surface of a maturing metropolis that stretches from Aventura to Florida City.

Reflecting the experience and knowledge of the drafters, the working document is weighted heavily to Miami Beach, downtown Miami and Biscayne Boulevard, and Coral Gables.

But Robinson says there's far more worthy of inclusion in a city that has seen plenty of note -- and lots to lament -- built in a brief but development-driven history.

Thus was born the Miami Architecture Project.

Robinson and his small team -- Miami architect Allan Shulman and James Donnelly, a history teacher at Miami Country Day School -- are turning the guide into an ambitious community collaboration.

Starting Jan. 31, the team will host 12 weekly meetings across Miami-Dade County to solicit suggestions and generate discussion about local buildings and places.


The meetings serve multiple purposes: Not just to ensure comprehensiveness, neither to produce an alluring introduction to the city for design-savvy visitors, but to educate residents about the architecture -- both the good and the not-so-great -- that sits mostly unnoticed before their eyes.

''We have so much great stuff we don't know we have,'' said Robinson, a planner for the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation, the project's sponsor, who trained as a landscape architect. ``As Miamians, we don't really know Miami all that well.''

To be sure, many other local architecture guides have been published. Just last week a thorough new pocket architectural guide -- Coral Gables, Miami Riviera, by University of Miami architecture professor Aristides Millas and preservationist Ellen Uguccioni -- went on sale.

There have been many glossy coffee-table books, too. But while some of the guides are excellent, virtually all have focused on narrow areas -- say, Coral Gables, or Art Deco hotels, Robinson said. And many are out of print.

''We know Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, South Beach. We don't know the whole piece together. There is nothing that shows it all between two covers,'' he said.

But Robinson wants to make one thing clear. This won't be a greatest-hits package.


The guide, and the public forums, will also encompass buildings that occupy positions of prominence but that to its authors are architecturally unsuccessful, as well as buildings that, while critically derided, are nonetheless popular -- buildings, in other words, that prompt visitors' or residents' curiosity.

As an example of the latter, Robinson cites the building with the lit tower of glass blocks that houses the China Grill on the corner of Fifth Street and Washington Avenue on South Beach: ''That building is an affront to many people here, but tourists love it,'' he said.

The theory underlying the project is that a public better attuned to design will demand better new buildings, and support preservation of the city's architectural legacy.

Robinson also aims to elevate public regard of Miami's Modernist and contemporary architecture, which has been overshadowed by efforts to preserve Miami Beach's Art Deco buildings and the Mediterranean buildings of the 1920s and 1930s in Miami and Coral Gables.

''There is a great consensus of opinion on stuff built before 1950, but half of Miami's lifetime has been since 1950, and we have to come to grips with what's significant about it,'' said Robinson, a driving force behind the increasing recognition given to the Miami Modern, or MiMo, buildings of the era. ``Back in the 1950s, architects really knew how to design for Miami.''

In the end, Robinson thinks the guide will include as many as 500 buildings and places, from the oldest -- the Cape Florida Lighthouse -- to the newest, such as the still-unfinished Performing Arts Center of Greater Miami. Many, if not most, will carry photos and critical commentaries, though some less significant ones may carry just a listing of address, date of construction and architect.

The guide will not, however, include buildings that no longer exist, no matter how significant or how much they're missed.

''It's very much about the present, not so much about the past, though of course the past is part of it,'' Robinson said. ``And I hope this will get people thinking more about the future.''