Designs on the Future

What we talk about when we talk about Art Basel, Dacra, and urban design

Craig Robins, a native Miamian and CEO of the development firm Dacra, has been a force in the transformation of South Beach and the Design District. His most ambitious project to date is Aqua, a "neighborhood" built from scratch that may become a model for mixing New Urbanism with contemporary architecture, in the heart of Miami Beach. A well-known collector and art sponsor, Robins talks to us from one of Dacra's offices on Lincoln Road.

New Times: During last year's Art Basel, the Design District played a central role in adding an urban and design dimension to the occasion, with all those alternative spaces showing theater, performance, and video art. What is your involvement and will it be as important this year?

Craig Robins: I see the Design District as a lab for creativity, which in the context of Basel added a cultural dimension. People need to come to Miami and conceive it as this special place, not only for what Miami has naturally, but also for the art and the cultural vitality of the city.

In a Craig Robins building, a lot of art can happen, like Miralda's shoe
Jonathan Postal
In a Craig Robins building, a lot of art can happen, like Miralda's shoe

Obviously Miami gained from Art Basel, but looking at substance beyond glitz, do you see this event as having a long-term impact for the city?

Yes, it already has. The beach and the clubs are fine, nothing wrong with that, but we are becoming a city of substance. I see Art Basel as this one event we can all rally around and produce something unique, for the art community ... it's an opportunity to come together and leave something behind, a lasting model. However, we shouldn't become a victim of our own success. We need to learn and build something substantive on our own that confirms and surpasses Art Basel.

What's that?

In my opinion our challenge now is to come up with a top art school, one that truly represents a north/south dialogue, because of our privileged positioning. We can cater to the best in a short period of time. I don't think we can really become unique for our museums, we can't compete in that league, but we can have one of the top five schools in the country.

I knew you were involved in this idea. What kind of school is this? Have you gotten any offers of support?

One has to think about the implications of an art school, what it means, especially a north/south art school where there's a continuous flow of great visiting teachers; artists that will be coming to Miami to make art and helping the students attending the school. If it works, then great artists would continue to be developed here. If we could become a central meeting point and we could even improve and heighten the mix of people that are here ... we could as a city have a bigger role in this international dialogue. What's the important thing to do next? I think it's [to nurture] the teaching aspect of Miami and work to elevate it.

How are you going about it?

We organized this meeting in Aspen, and invited people from around the country and around the world: artists, teachers, department heads, and architects. It was a small group. The purpose was to start to talk about this. The meeting was in preparation for a symposium that we are organizing. Donna Shalala [the president of the University of Miami] has agreed to chair it. The subject matter is the art school of the 21st century.

Will this school be connected to any particular institution?

The school could be part of the University of Miami or part of the museum system. It could be independent. In fact the school could be part of a university that is not in Florida. The objective now is to think through all the issues together and figure out what's the way that is the most effective.

I'd like to move to the issue of urban design. Our city is very poor and our urban landscape is dismal. On top of it there's a real estate explosion aimed at only the rich, and the result is like a study in contrasts. Can the middle class and the poor live with quality here?

You talk about these projects that are elitist and expensive. I find that challenging ... it's hard to do something that's brand-new and well designed and do it affordably. But it's a challenge that anyone has to think over. On the other hand, developers are very dependent upon zoning regulations. Sometimes people don't like what's built, but developers do what they are allowed to do. I think we need to improve our codes in Miami-Dade County to facilitate better quality design.

Are you saying bad design [is because of] zoning regulations?

Well, generally developers get blamed. But it's a complex issue: There's restrictive zoning and unenlightened consumers ... conditioned by a greedy market that offers something which is not that good [but] consumers want it, and they pay for it. Personally I'm inspired by the notion of doing something with quality. I don't see myself as a real estate developer as much as a CEO of a creative company -- and then we express ourselves through real estate by working with architects, designers, to build something in a special way ...

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