Beautiful weather, beautiful beaches, beautiful people – that is what many
people associate with Miami Beach. Few realise that this resort on the
southeast coat of Florida is also an architectural jewel.
The chic quarter South Beach, in the south of the narrow island strip
opposite the city of Miami, has more than 400 buildings in Art Deco style,
making it the largest example in the world of this elegant style of the
1920s and 1930s.
Hotels, apartment blocks and businesses with modernist white and pastel
colour facades line Ocean Drive, the promenade on the Atlantic coast. But
they also adorn the quieter residential streets a few blocks away. The
typical pale green, powder blue or salmon pink buildings, absorb the colours
of the sea. This “Tropical Deco”, only to be found in Miami Beach, has a
The Art Deco quarter of Miami Beach has a rich history and has made a
spectacular comeback in the last decade. Most of the buildings were
constructed in the 1930s, when around 100 new hotels and resorts per year
were being built here to cater to the growing middle classes from the large
cities in the north.
The architects combined progressive, industrialised construction techniques
with modern design. They began with the streamlined forms of classical Art
Deco and added the maritime shapes of tropical southern Florida. They made
facades the shape of ocean waves, balconies reminiscent of ships’ decks,
windows shaped like portholes and stylised palm trees, pelicans and parrots.
Bright facades, light interiors and dynamic structures aimed to counteract
the gloom of the economic depression.
“A style developed that was both theatrical and romantic, streamlined and
sculptural, a style which breathed fantasy and vivaciousness,” wrote
architecture critic Laura Cerwinske in her book “Tropical Deco” about Miami
The resort was built to compete with the dream cities of the west coast of
America. And it did indeed become an attraction for Hollywood directors and
cameramen, who discovered the special light and the fresh faces of southern
Florida. Nowhere could Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance the night away
so perfectly than on the roof terraces of an Art Deco hotel under the
tropical, starlight of Miami Beach.
But this early boom era for Miami Beach ended abruptly when the U.S. entered
World War II. In 1941 most tourists disappeared and troops were stationed in
many of the hotels. Miami was an important base for the marines, who were
trained here for military action. The steel previously used for making
concrete, was now put into the production of tanks and warships.
After the war, Miami Beach became the preferred destination of poor
immigrants from Latin America. Without the necessary care and attention,
many hotels lost their gleam. Instead, many were painted a gloomy brown. The
guests who returned here in the next few decades tended to be people who
remembered Miami Beach in better days. This gradually turned the resort into
a holiday destination mainly for elderly people. In the booming tourist
years of the 1960s and 1970s, Miami Beach was completely out of fashion.
The Art Deco quarter suffered some serious losses in this period.
Magnificent buildings stood empty and fell into disrepair. Only lack of
money prevented many of them from being demolished, which ironically, was
what saved them. In 1979 a group of local campaigners, architects and
politicians managed to have the square mile Art Deco quarter included on the
U.S. register of historically valuable monuments.
Yet real protection came only with a city decree in 1986. Since then, a
house owner who wants to demolish a house, has had to delay six months
before being given the go-ahead. If the monument protection agency manages
to find an investor for restoration in this period, the owner is paid
But this emergency brake is hardly ever necessary any more. Since the end of
the 1980s Miami Beach has seen a great renaissance, thanks mainly to the
restoration of its Art Deco buildings. New apartment blocks even replicate
the old style. The bars and restaurants of Ocean Drive are now among the
most fashionable in the whole region, attracting the young in-crowd as well
Every evening here is fiesta time, with jazz and Latino bands on the hotel
terraces setting the mood. A never-ending line of convertibles, vintage
limousines and heavy motorbikes thunder over the promenade.
Tourists looking for a quiet night’s sleep should seek accommodation north
of Collins Avenue. This is also the preferred haunt of photographers,
advertising companies and models. They use the beach and the dressed up Art
Deco surroundings as a backdrop for their work in the early morning hours.
This is when the light facades gleam in the first rays of sun, and flamingos
pose dreamily as if painted onto the scene.