In this corner: a fabulously falling-apart Art Deco structure, all curving walls, porthole windows, and terrazzo floors. Should it be squashed like a bug, or should the building and its environs be respected? This is the perennial dilemma of the developer and the residents of Miami Beach. In the far corner: a planned community, all shoddily built, cookie-cutter-style houses and cul-de-sacs, so far removed from the rest of the world that a car is essential to a placid existence.
Whether it's rampant development or repulsive suburban sprawl, few can dispute that the physical environment has lasting and powerful effects on our quality of life. This week five members of a private, nonprofit advocacy group, the Municipal Art Society (MAS), will address this issue in relation to the City of Miami Beach. MAS has had significant influence on urban design, planning, and preservation in New York City. Established in 1893 MAS began as a group of public-art proponents. Over the years it evolved, developing the nation's first zoning ordinance in 1916 and then in 1965, following the destruction of historic Penn Station, helping to craft a trailblazing landmarks-preservation law. MAS is perhaps best known for its campaign to save Grand Central Terminal, a fight that lasted four years and went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978.
Meetings of the MAS team with Miami Beach city officials and staff will be part of workshops called Planning for the Livable City; the public is invited to participate in lectures and forums. "An intelligent, long-range, and clear vision for where you want to end up is always crucial," says MAS executive director Frank Sanchez. "An important thing about making Miami Beach more livable is to really understand the things that everyone feels make it livable now, that are really enhancing the quality of life. You want to learn the lesson from things you like and make sure that new things go up that are supportive."
Battling scattered suburbs dominated by the automobile is the central concern of the New Urbanism movement, the high lamas of which are architects Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany, former Yale University students of eminent professor Vincent Scully. On Thursday at the same time that the MAS holds its forum, Scully will deliver a lecture titled "Gardens, Fortification, and the Nation State" at Miami Art Museum. Scully's talk focuses on the French classic gardens of the Seventeenth Century, how they relate to fortification, and how they nurtured France as a nation state. But its ultimate themes are modern planning and contemporary urbanism.
Followers of New Urbanism with wide-eyed (or perhaps cockeyed) optimism look back longingly at the attributes they claim once made communities function smoothly. A certain nostalgia prevails for the Leave It to Beaver-ish neighborhoods of yesteryear, where sidewalks, parks, low-scale buildings, and main-street shopping areas catered to people and not to cars. They forget, however, the environment that cultivated the gentle Beav also nurtured corrupt Eddie Haskell.
All of which brings us back to Miami Beach, a place to which Scully (who lives in Coral Gables, "a fine example of planning" according to him) gives a big thumbs up as "a perfect example of how successful historic preservation can be, an expression of enormous success." Residents and tourists, who see historic buildings imperiled, watch unbridled new development, and search endlessly for parking spaces, just might disagree.