AQUA combines traditional Urbanism with cutting-edge architecture
AQUA combines traditional Urbanism with cutting-edge architecture
Jonathan Postal

Futuristic Fusion

AQUA is an 8.5-acre residential neighborhood nearing completion, located on the southern tip of Allison Island at Collins Avenue and 63rd Street in Miami Beach. The $225 million planned community is developer Craig Robins's most recent and ambitious project. Drawing on the expertise of Miami's design superstars Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (DPZ), this 151-dwelling development boasts a master plan that fuses modern architecture with traditional urbanism.

By making pedestrians a determinant of its design, AQUA represents an important step in the evolution of Miami's urban landscape. Its community-friendly layout renders AQUA unique among more traditional residential projects.

The success of Robins's development lies in the range of its modern architecture, which harmoniously comes together to reflect the designers' master plan. Providing a diversity of voices are well-known and emerging architects from New York and Miami: Walter Chatham, Alison Spear, Alexander Gorlin, Emanuela Frattini Magnusson, Suzanne Martinson, Allan Shulman, Hariri & Hariri, Brown Demandt, Albaisa Musumano, and DPZ.

The streetscape surrounding the concrete, palm-tree-lined entrance off Alton Road is dominated by a parking facility -- the last remaining building of the St. Francis Hospital complex that previously occupied this site. (Robins was born at the hospital.) Walter Chatham refurbished the parking structure, constructing sixteen stylish apartments on top of the existing edifice, including one he now owns. Partially covering the garage's southern wall is a 150-foot mural. Created by Richard Tuttle, Splash depicts a large water spatter made from colored glass and ceramic tile.

Near a partially completed terrazzo tile sculpture by Guillermo Kuitca stands Alison Spear's signature building -- a hip white edifice embellished with blue-tiled walls and salient glass balconies. Alexander Gorlin's neighboring beige structure is elegant and sculptural, showcasing deep balconies, and crowned by a swooping rooftop.

Aqua Avenue divides the project's three mid-rise buildings from its 46 townhouses built on the island's western side and clustered around lush, tropical courtyards. Most streets end at the water's edge, affording future residents views of Indian Creek.

When the newly planted trees are fully grown, AQUA will be a pedestrian's heaven, decorated with narrow streets ornamented by an abundance of foliage. In addition two groves -- one citrus, one mango -- will nestle among the homes and provide plenty of shade.

New Times spoke with the developer and a number of AQUA's architects at their respective buildings.

Craig Robins

AQUA is beginning to look like a finished product. How do you feel about having it brought to this point?

We felt that now that the mid-rise condos were finished, it was a good moment to inaugurate the island. This is a continuing improving process and the neighborhood will evolve. After Richard Tuttle's art project and the swimming pool are done, we'll get to another stage: people actually moving in and customizing their homes.

What's so special about townhouses?

If you look at housing types in Miami Beach, you get a lot of high-rise buildings. We thought that an interesting alterative was to have the private home on the guarded island; a similar idea to that of the most coveted properties in Miami Beach, only without the urban setbacks.

How so?

This project has the swimming pool and other organized facilities such as a spa, gourmet take-out, clubhouse, and so on. These are the nice things about a condo life. But you don't have the anonymous huge building (most likely with a generic design) in an oppressive environment with no possibility of walking. We have the best of both worlds.

There's an obvious conceptual diversity about AQUA. You stuck with this plan of mixing New Urbanism and modern or contemporary style.

I've always disagreed with this perception that New Urbanism is incompatible with contemporary-style architecture, and this is an example. I think we're breaking ground here.

Any future plans?

AQUA has inspired me to do a major expansion in the Design District. We're building twenty buildings, with more than a million square feet. I've learned the importance of new constructions. Remember, I started as a preservationist, and the opportunities for building on the Beach are quite limited.

You said today that the project is financially viable. Could you be more explicit?

We're not done yet, there're still a few details, but I can tell you that we've sold all of the condo units and most of the townhouses. This is a social experiment when you take the financial profit and you combine it with the benefits of what a project of this level brings to the community, the degree of innovation.

You'll live here. Do you own a condo or a townhouse?

I bought one of the houses. I love the prospect of living in a four-story building -- the privacy it offers, the distribution of spaces.

Walter Chatham

What is your contribution to the project?

You're inside the old garage to the hospital. [Laughs]

You fooled me!

My struggle was to turn an unfriendly building without windows (a sort of medieval fortress) into an acceptable image. I had to transform it and make it tropical. This building is the gatekeeper of the whole project. We realized we had to retain this structure, that we could put all the parking in this building, but it's a far shot from your ubiquitous Miami parking garage on the ground floor with apartments above -- not a very interesting choice.

Can AQUA be emulated in Miami?

In the high-end of the spectrum, Miami has two predominant modes: the very expensive medium-to-low-density residential or these two block-long buildings east of here [on Collins Avenue] that obliterate any possibility to have a reasonably scaled neighborhood. AQUA establishes a new way to create density, which is a real-estate imperative, without resorting to the usual models. Miami Beach needs to reconsider its zoning. Down [at the southern end] of Alton Road, you have these huge apartment buildings and the single-family houses across the street. I believe you can take the two and synthesize them and have a much better neighborhood.

Alison Spear

Your building has a hip modern shape with this cool white/blue touch to it. It feels a bit Aegean in the Atlantic. What is the idea behind it?

It's a Miami Beach palette. I'm a modernist who is interested in history. This is a historically referenced modern building. I'm a Miami person. I grew up not even next to the water but almost in the water. [Laughs] I wanted to do a tropical modern building, one that embodies Miami Beach.

How was your work?

It happened the way it should've happened. We were given a site plan and each did what we thought was best. We didn't discuss with each other the design vocabulary, which is why the buildings came out in such a diverse manner.

What do you think about the place?

This project was scary at first. Craig went against the conventional wisdom. The question was: How can you charge millions of dollars for a townhouse that doesn't have a back yard and doesn't sit on the water? The idea is that Craig was not selling townhouses but a community. And the outcome has been very interesting. AQUA doesn't attract speculative buyers but real people who want to live here. We architects build the boxes, and people make the place. My bet is that it will be a great environment to live in, with a fantastic group of people.

Alexander Gorlin

Your building's atrium with the skylights reminds me of Rio's modern architecture.

My building is a mix between an iconic tower and trying to blend in. I attempted to work depths and shadows, getting the right sculptural flavor to it. As you see the building from the water, it's like a ship. The idea is to focus the energy of this little peninsula. A swooping top, the sun coming in, and then all the activities associated with that.

How many units?

My building has 40 units. It's a small building that is at once active and complex.

You made a very strong statement at today's press conference. [Architecture critic] Beth Dunlop characterized it as a bit hyperbolic. Could you repeat it?

Yes. I said that AQUA is the most important plan since Corbusier's Ville Radieuse [a proposed city the famed architect designed in the early Thirties].

Wow! And how is that?

In the end Modernism never came up with a feasible plan that created spaces for people. Ville Radieuse was a series of towers in the park. Their rigid separation of functions made diversity impossible, not to mention the scale and the vast empty spaces. Let's face it, Corbusier hated the street, but it became the model for housing projects. Unwillingly the replication of that model had a devastating effect on cities around the world. There hasn't been a plan since the mid-Twenties that works together bringing together towers and low-rise buildings in one place -- or there's never been one in a manner that is convincing for the pedestrians.

Suzanne Martinson

Your townhouse design is pretty handsome. What were you trying to achieve?

Thanks. I was striving for a modern space with an open plan and I think I succeeded. My house had the 36-foot lot. My idea was to go with the grand gesture and try to get the spaces correct: the open porch, an outdoor living room. It occurred to me to make a big façade. When you look at the combination ... you can set up those double doors and you can use it as a living room and you get this nice tropical room. It's romantic living in the tropics. The idea is: Are you outside or inside? Then you have another roof terrace.

A Villa Savoy.

Yes, in a way my building is a Corbusiean piece, but ultimately this whole thing is about making your environment more livable, more in context with human beings. We have to learn to live better.

Do you think Miami's big interests can learn?

Yes, they can, although most of the time they seem not to. [Laughs] Take Fisher Island, for instance. They're building three or four more of the buildings they already have there. It's a developer-driven thing, a missed opportunity. The entrance into the city of Miami -- like in Venice when you arrive from the Adriatic.

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri

Your house has a complex, cubist volume. Can you tell me a bit about it?

Gisue Hariri: The idea of a townhouse has been around for a long time. Because of the width of a townhouse, there's not a lot you can do. The challenge here opened a possibility because we're not going the traditional way. Our idea was to break the volume so that it didn't look like a big mass. We wanted to bring in the surroundings, the air and the waves.

Mojgan Hariri: At first we were a little nervous that the environment would become a little claustrophobic. But now that I'm here and can see it in person, I see a nice harmony of tall buildings and shorter buildings living together happily.

Adolfo Zayas-Bazan Albaisa and Kristopher Musumano

What's the idea behind your design?

Albaisa: Contrast and complexity in a tropical climate.

Nice combination.

Musumano: The idea is to provide light and ventilation in deep spaces as well as a meeting place that is simultaneously outside and inside. There's a movement through the house that you don't see in a regular townhouse.

What's the main theme?

Albaisa: Miami's tropical climate. We were interested in light and shadow. I think our houses seek a sculptural quality and a consistency with the color palette.

Musumano: We use color to produce contrast rather than the form itself.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk

These continuing views through the alleys are fantastic.

It's a wonderful experience! This project has so many hands in it that you can easily say, "This is pretty good." It may look easy, but it was a lot of work for a lot of people.

Density-wise, moving east to west, one gets this feeling of being on a wave.

AQUA is intended to slope down, from the tall [on the east side] to the low buildings [on the west]. There's a New Urbanism concept called "the transect," which is about the detailing in a city for those places that are more urban or more rural. The transect suggests the dimension and the detailing of the streets and how you get those transitions right.

What's the purpose of it?

To create an environment where all of the elements work together to produce something that is greater than the sum of the parts. I think AQUA is an example of the kind of transition that Miami doesn't have.

Is this a new step for New Urbanism?

What's new here is the mix of the low and high and of course the image of the architecture. It's contemporary. Some of these refer to the young history of Modernism. There's a bit of Vienna and Miami Beach.

Can AQUA be emulated in Miami?

I hope so.


Downtown Miami. If we're going to have the explosion of population that people are predicting, we're going have to come up with better ideas. Gentrifying in a rational way in support of public transit, using trains and buses. Miami's commercial corridors are beginning to sprawl. Take Biscayne Boulevard: The residents are right to be perturbed that next to a two-story house all of a sudden you have a forty-story building.

Talk about Beth Dunlop's comment comparing AQUA to a symphony, namely if Urbanism is the written score, the architecture becomes the music itself.

The architecture of these buildings is outstanding. In fact this is not only about the Urbanism. You can sort of imagine when people start living in them. There's a visual movement, a complexity given by the architecture that is pretty exciting. So many buildings today miss that. It's not only about location, location, but also design, design!


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