Architecture & Design

Miami Icons: The Adrienne Arsht Center, Where Glossy Style Meets Cultural Substance

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 Hannah Sentenac argues that the Arsht Center is the perfect metaphor for Miami.

For drivers in a dizzying dash to and from the shores of South Beach via I-395, the Adrienne Arsht Center stands in greeting like the steely exoskeleton of some futuristic beast.

Dreamed up by illustrious Latin American architect Cesar Pelli, the structure is Miami's past, present and future, all wrapped into one gloriously unusual, sweeping complex. Much like the city's bombastic personality, its 570,000 square feet of glass and stone and sprawling space is impossible to miss - both superficially and as a symbolic reminder of who we really are.

We're Miamians. Subtlety is not in our Spanglish.

Spanning two city blocks and a good chunk of lower-level skyline, the Arsht Center is a venue, a meeting place, a landmark, a classroom, and an ode to the city's often overlooked commitment to culture. It's as anomalous as Miami itself.

On one hand, its sloping domes, glassy facades, and street-straddling pedestrian bridge echo modernity and progress. On the other, the seemingly out of place Carnival Tower and its off-white art deco charm are a throwback to the past.

Of its many memorable assets, most striking is the Ziff. It juts out of the pavement and into the sky, a wall of glass and lights and abrupt angles. Joined by its sister on an opposing street, the Knight Concert Hall, the two beckon visitors like moths to a flame. At night, the whole lights up like a glittering beehive or an alien spaceship, buzzing with opera fans in floor-length gowns and nonconformists in flip-flops. Miami is nothing if not diverse.

Despite the developments of the past ten years, many people still claim Miami lacks culture; hemming and hawing and waxing envious about NYC and Los Angeles.

But the Arsht Center tells a different story. The Ziff Ballet Opera House alone seats 2,400 and boasts the second largest stage in North America. The John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall, another 2,200 seats. Then there's the 300 seats in the Carnival Studio Theater's black-box, the outdoor Parker and Vann Thomson Plaza for the Arts, the 3,500-square-foot Peacock Education Center. The center houses the Florida Grand Opera, the Miami City Ballet, the New World Symphony, and America's Orchestral Academy, greets internationally renowned touring shows, showcases local talent, hosts events, and offers an unsurpassed roster of programming.

From Morrissey to H2OMBRE, from Elf to the Boston Pops -- you name it, Arsht has hosted it.

This speaks to a city with an unparallelled commitment to culture.

Like first timers to the 305, visitors to the Arsht Center often leave starry-eyed, drawn in by the venue's dramatic lighting and sleek interior and towering ceilings. It's striking on the outside, but even more appealing when you get a look at its guts. Like Miami, it's more than meets the eye.

The complex may not be everyone's aesthetic taste, but neither is Miami.

"It's not for everyone," long-term locals explain to unhappy transplants from other cities. And it isn't.

It is, however, a city where old and new clash and commingle; where a glossy outer layer protects a surprisingly substantial inner core; where lights and glamour and magic are a facade for something even more substantial -- culture, intellect and creativity.

Both Miami and the Arsht Center are sexy and singular; delicate and hard; strange and unforgettable. Unions of superficial beauty and unexpected depth. We are a city like no other -- we are avant garde and contradictory and larger than life. And so is the Arsht. What better structure to speak for us, without saying a word?

Previous Icons:

The Colony Hotel, Ocean Drive's Most Famous Art Deco Building

The Freedom Tower Welcomed Cubans to America

The Miami Tower, Colorful Chameleon of the Skyline

Vizcaya, Birthplace of Magic City Luxury

Stiltsville, Offshore Escape For Miami's Most Colorful Characters

American Airlines Arena, Home of the White Hot Heat

The Bacardi Complex (AKA YoungArts), Striking Beauty of Biscayne

The Biltmore, a Glitzy, Golden-Age Throwback

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Hannah Sentenac covers veg food, drink, pop culture, travel, and animal advocacy issues. She is also editor-in-chief of
Contact: Hannah Sentenac

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