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 ...

There's nothing wrong with people making money, but the urban landscape must have some quality ...

Our business model is not to make the most money out of some building that we're erecting, but to become a stakeholder in a neighborhood....There is a difference between saying this is a good neighborhood, and then exploit it by putting up a building that may not help the neighborhood but may be economically profitable ... I want to make something that will make the whole neighborhood worth more.

Let's move on to Aqua, which is an interesting example of compromise between judicious urban planning and provocative design.

With Aqua, I want to show that low-rise in a neighborhood is better than high-rise. You can take a tall, unremarkable building and spread it. From the urban point of view it works better, that's a big local issue. On a national and international level, there's a rift between new urbanism and modern- or contemporary-style architecture ... the perception is that they are incompatible. I disagree. You can have a beautifully designed neighborhood with modern/contemporary architecture; with Aqua we're the first to do that. We're breaking ground. This is a unique project and I hope it can inspire a different approach to other developers.

You and your wife Ivelin have a nice art collection. Do you collect local artists?

We do, of course, but I don't necessarily see it as local. We collect it because they're good artists producing good art.

What are your plans for the collection?

We both believe that art is an important part in the development of our society. We look at a lot of art and are constantly trying to integrate our collection into our neighborhood, the places we live and work. We collaborate with other collectors in bringing interesting projects -- I am thinking now of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, for instance. We'll keep collecting and making it available. You can see everything we have in this space. We keep rotating stuff. I like to live with it and make it accessible. That's all I can say right now.

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