How South Beach, Miami Became the World’s Capital of Fantasy ArchitectureMay 21, 2019
Ever wonder why the architectural style of South Beach is so unique? Here’s the surprising story of how it got its extraordinary style.
It doesn’t take much for one to notice that South Beach architecture is special. Anyone who’s ever visited knows the area as an urban architectural playground where photographers, art historians, and artists gather from all over the world to savor the neighborhood’s sophisticated style of the buildings and parks.
But how did it get this way? You’ll be surprised at the rags-to-riches tale that describes the history of one of the world’s most recognized architectural styles.
The Curious, Colorful, Convoluted History of South Beach Architecture
An architectural fantasy playground created from boggy swampland then neglected for decades, South Beach is today the trendiest destination with the chicest architectural styles. Photographers love it, of course.There’s something for everyone: a mix of urban street chic, Caribbean flavor, and a nod to history with the countless preserved hotels and clubs.
In a nutshell, South Beach architecture is eclectic style combined with daring color schemes borrowed from Caribbean architecture and a bent toward resort luxury creates the unique South Beach style of architecture and decor. The style takes its cues from the tangible energy pervading South Beach, one which is continually renewing itself through the constant influx of international visitors and new residents — people who work in South Beach and who travel here from other parts of the US.
The energy seems limitless and always fresh and it’s reflected in the whimsical modern style seen everywhere on the streets. You can feel the passion in the way people live, eat, drink, work, and dress. Lavishness is displayed, creativity is expressed, and luxury is revered in the style and architecture of South Beach.
But it wasn’t always this way…
Miami Beach’s Building Boom in the 1930s
The area south of Fifth Street was developed mostly in the 1920s and 1930s and marketed to a middle-class, Jewish population from the Northeast. The onset of World War II in the US in 1941 ended construction in the area. The hotels were built in the Mediterranean style, but with a new Art Deco twist.
Art Deco, as an architectural style, celebrated the new trendiness of culture, made possible by new technology made available to the traveling masses: cruise ships, airplanes, locomotives, the car. The clean industrial lines conjured up the lines of the machines that made travel possible, and the chrome accents reminded people of the chrome accents on cars and trains.
Latin culture got in the mix and gave flair to the industrial style, exemplified in details around windows and other purely cosmetic fixtures on the outside of the buildings. The mix of flat and curved walls and all the ornamentation for which Art Deco is famous are extensions of the concurrent architectural style called Big City Deco, and of Moderne design.
The Art Deco district in South Beach Miami is revered partly because the buildings in the area are all built on the same scale, the same South Beach architectural style. This makes for a pleasing harmony amongst the buildings, specifically in geometry, color, and style of decoration.
You don’t find this many places in the modern world!
Art Deco in South Beach is indeed very pleasing: fanciful colors, whimsical ornamentation, human scale, all make for a neighborhood architectural style that is delightful and which evokes feelings of vacation, luxury, fun, and stylishness. It’s almost romantic while remaining modern and chic. The buildings invite you to have fun and lose your inhibitions in South Beach Miami.
After World War II, when the country began to recover and places like South Beach Miami were returned to civilian life after serving as soldier housing, there was another round of building. Parts of the US population were experiencing newfound wealth and glamour, and South Beach was ready to supply the hotels to fit the lifestyle.
The Fontainebleau is the best example of the new resort glamour that began to characterize architectural style in South Beach. Gloss, fantasy, and luxury set the stage for this French Provincial style hotel designed by Morris Lapidus, who incorporated curving staircases to nowhere, glitzy chandeliers, and sweeping curves everywhere.
Color is King
In the 1960s and 1970s, South Beach Miami was neglected and fell into drab disrepair. The Art Deco consistency of color and decoration was interrupted by large gaudy storefront signs, ruining the artistic effect. The pristine white buildings with their colorful ornamentations were painted over in drab colors like beige and brown.
If you were in South Beach Miami at that time, you would realize how large a part color plays in the look of Art Deco and South Beach architectural style. Art Deco requires color schemes to offset the architectural details, so painting everything brown is counterproductive, artistically speaking.
After the renaissance of South Beach Miami in the 1980s, the formerly white Art Deco buildings were painted pastel colors, with details and ornamentations painted in contrasting colors. It’s not what the original builders had in mind, but it does keep to the spirit of the architecture, and the buildings were now as beautiful or more beautiful than ever, depending on who you ask. Today, you can see both white styles and the pastel versions when you stroll down the street.
Fantasy Architecture in South Beach
South Beach is full of glorious examples of Fantasy Architecture, an indulgence that was historically available only to King and Queens of Europe, Pharaohs, and the wealthy barons of the early history of the United States.
Today, we see modern versions of this in South Beach architecture everywhere we go. It’s a style that lends itself perfectly to what South Beach is today… a fantasy playground where we can all revel in a carnival-like display of wealth and luxury. Indeed, those who visit do often fancy themselves kings and queens. At least while they’re here, they can play the role and live the fantasy, which is what South Beach is all about.
Author: Captain Damon grew up in south Florida and makes his living on the water. He is the owner of FKF Charters and runs boat trips for visitors year round.