Public Spaces, Private Lives

Miami Beach's Art Deco hotel lobbies are really social laboratories

Today's upscale airport lounge may seem the embodiment of international chic (MIA excluded, of course), but there was a time, from the Twenties through the Fifties, when nothing could be more cosmopolitan than the lobby of a fine hotel. In the words of German critic Siegfried Kracauer, such lobbies represented "a symbol of city life in the modern metropolis."

The obvious contemporary example of this is Las Vegas. Writer Mark Katz asserts that the desert city "has literally transformed the hotel lobby into cinematic space, as if guests would öcheck into' a film as they enter the themed lobbies of the Mirage, Luxor, or MGM Grand, with narrative sequences of sinking galleons and exploding volcanoes."

We are more design-aware since the Sixties, when art's "environment" and "performance" permeated interior design with stars like Verner Panton and Luigi Colani creating "living experiments," and firms like Superstudio and Archizoom planning futuristic habitations and self-regulating environments.

The Sagamore's renovation is minimalist and clean, spacious and restful
Jonathan Postal
The Sagamore's renovation is minimalist and clean, spacious and restful
The National: This is "historic" renovation, being as faithful as possible to the building's original splendor
Jonathan Postal
The National: This is "historic" renovation, being as faithful as possible to the building's original splendor

Then there's cinema, our prime vehicle of cultural dissemination, which helped dramatize the hotel lobby. Perhaps you remember that cast of peculiar travelers striding through a lobby in the movie Grand Hotel, the epitome of Berlin's modern interior and exclusive privacy in the Thirties. Where else would a prefeminist Garbo utter, "I want to be alone"?

Who can forget that scene in Visconti's Death in Venice where a fading Gustav von Aschenbach (played by a bespectacled Dirk Bogarde) is able to hang around like a decadent flâneur in the lobby of the Hotel Des Bains on the Lido in Venice?

Or Antonioni's 1960 masterpiece L'Avventura, shot in the San Domenico Palace in Sicily, a site that has since become a landmark. More recently, in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Tokyo's Park Hyatt Hotel got a lead role along with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. What's the fascination?

Hotels are no longer places simply to stop for the night; they are social laboratories that manufacture desire in constant permutation between reclusion and exhibitionism. Architect Rem Koolhaas, for example, sees our post-modern lobbies as "interfaces between the public and private." In other words, your hotel room is just a provisional stop to redirect ongoing encounters that begin in the lobby.

In Miami Beach we have an alluring coastal landscape packed with historic buildings whose main attraction is their Art Deco design, a style that turned modernism into fashion. But our Deco is unique in that it feels subtropical; its look is sleek and nontraditional without being ostentatious. Since the explosion of South Beach in the early Nineties, many of these superb buildings were given a second chance to shine. Ironically it was the destruction of one of the finest examples, the Henry Hohauser-designed New Yorker, that sparked widespread interest in preserving those that remained.

Preservation, however, has different meanings for idealists and opportunists. It's one thing to bring back a building's shell and infrastructure and hire an interior designer to make a statement that reflects a concept. It's quite another to do a mediocre, superficial makeover in hopes of getting a free ride thanks to your conscientious next-door neighbor. In South Beach, I've seen both.

Lately it's been all about the glitter. In magazines we often read about the pool, the penthouse, and the visiting celebrities. As an alternative I decided to take a look at the lobbies of some of the area's renovated larger hotels. The smaller ones, including many of the gems along Ocean Drive, have much more modest lobbies and must be viewed in a different way. For this review I favored morning visits, when the details (or lack thereof) are not embellished by the seduction of artificial light.


The restoration of Roy F. France's 1939 National (1667 Collins Ave.) is first-rate. This is what's called "historic" renovation, the idea being to bring back a building's past by being as faithful as possible to its original splendor.

As you walk through the doors on a long beige rug emblazoned with the letter "N," you notice the Tamara restaurant (peppered with replicas of works by Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka) and a spacious mezzanine featuring an attractive geometric handrail grille.

In the lobby most of the period furniture matches the polished gold terrazzo floor. Take a close look at the fixture work, including the aluminum air-conditioning registers, the elevator's polished metal door, and the period phone booth next to the front desk.

The National's bar and lounge area are true works of art, with sumptuous woodwork balanced by light-brown upholstered armchairs -- a subdued and urbane ambiance. The hotel makes good in elegance, comfort, and warmth. It feels authentic without being a literal reproduction. No wonder the National was honored by the Dade Heritage Trust and bestowed with the Miami Design Preservation League's top award.

One of the taller South Beach hotels is the Delano (1685 Collins Ave.), built in 1947 and designed by architect Robert Swartburg. It was refurbished in 1995 by one of the world's most recognized designers, Philippe Starck.

You've probably seen the spacious lobby with its chocolate wood floors against huge white columns leading to a corridor with vaporous white curtains. (Starck's game is to elicit curiosity and mystery.) There's an impressive collection of modern and contemporary signature pieces by Charles and Ray Eames, Alessandro Mendini, Starck, Gaetano Pesce, and more.

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