Miami Icons: The Bacardi Complex (AKA YoungArts), Striking Beauty of Biscayne
Photos by Karli Evans
San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has the Arch. Las Vegas has its retro welcome sign. It seems like every city has an iconic structure to represent itself to the rest of the world. Every city but Miami, that is. The Magic City is full of architectural gems, and maybe that's why no one building has come to define it. But that's left this town without a symbol of its own. In our Miami Icons series, we're aiming to fix that. Today, writer Travis Cohen honors the uniquely adorned buildings of the Bacardi Complex.
There are lots of people who scoff at the name Bacardi when it comes to "good" rum. There are also lots of people who've forgotten or never knew that it was Facundo Bacardi who distilled the world's first white rum in the 1830s, an accomplishment that has inspired, improved, and instigated many a drunken night in Miami. And there are plenty of people who have passed by the Bacardi complex on 21st and Biscayne and had a similarly blasé reaction, relegating it to the back-burner of their memories as just another office building of the past.
Those people don't know a damn thing.
Yes, if you simply drive down Biscayne Boulevard and manage to only catch the front of the Bacardi building, you might think it's just another drab, dark wall of glass. But wander around the property -- take a look at the bright white and blue flanks of the building, amble towards Northeast Second Avenue and get a look at the annex covered in thick chunks of colored glass, glittering in the daylight and glowing in backlit ambiance at night -- and you'll truly realize that these are among the most precious buildings in Miami.
The Bacardi complex's tower was built in 1963 and served as the US headquarters of Bacardi Limited up until 2009. While the tower itself was envisioned by Cuban architect Enrique Gutierrez, the arresting azulejos -- the white and blue facades on the sides of the building -- were designed by Francisco Brennand, a Brazilian artist well-known for his ceramic works. The facades are comprised of some 28,000 handmade tiles, and yet, in spite of all their enormity, there's something about the ceramic murals that feels homey and intimate. If you're driving along Biscayne north of Downtown, it really is the building that catches your eye, that entices you and excites you and reminds you what an cool city you live in.
But if you're taking Northeast Second instead, fret not. Added in 1973, the annex of the Bacardi building -- often referred to as a 'jewel box' building for both its shape and its remarkably jewel-like exterior -- is a wild sight. The main bulk of the building sits 47 feet off the ground on a central support structure that looks like it couldn't possibly bear the strain of the mass above it, a support design that is similar but more visually extreme to that of the tower on Biscayne. The box itself is covered in 1-inch thick pieces of hammered glass, colored and arranged in a mosaic version of German artist Johannes M. Dietz's original painting that paid homage to the distillation of those Caribbean spirits that Bacardi started out with. It's an unreal piece of architecture, stunning in both engineering and aesthetics, all the more so when you consider that this giant glass box that looks like it should be utterly unstable has withstood a little over four decades of hurricanes.
In 2009, Bacardi USA had its headquarters in Coral Gables and for years, the Biscayne campus sat unused. Two years ago, the complex was officially sold to the National YoungArts Foundation as their new headquarters, and plans were set in motion for a complete interior remodeling by Frank Gehry. Fortunately, neither the YoungArts foundation nor the master architect has any intention of changing the beloved exterior.
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