Drivers headed west toward downtown on the MacArthur Causeway have been greeted by two strange sights lately. To the north, the old Miami Herald office has already begun to decay, its once grand signage replaced by the flickering neon of what looks like a dive bar named Brown Mackie College. Meanwhile, in stark contrast to the newspaper's sad slump, a futuristic building has suddenly risen to the south. Perched atop concrete stilts, it peers over the causeway like a spaceship from Orson Welles' War of the Worlds.
It's no alien invader. But the new Miami Art Museum — designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron — is nonetheless on a mission to take this city's cultural scene into hyperdrive. Director Thomas Collins recently took New Times on a tour of the much-discussed building. Here's how it went.
We arrived with reservations. After all, the museum has been embroiled in controversy since it officially changed its name to the Pérez Art Museum Miami. In 2011, billionaire real estate developer Jorge M. Pérez — known as the tropical Donald Trump — slapped his name on the structure in exchange for a $40 million donation of cash and art. Several board members quit over the decision.
Equally jarring is the initial impression that PAMM has a better view of the causeway than of Biscayne Bay or the Miami skyline. But Collins, outfitted in a cowboy-hat-shaped hard hat, assured us that architects at Herzog & de Meuron had done their homework.
"If the building directly faced the bay, you'd have an hour and a half of sunlight blazing through the gallery every morning," he said. Not exactly ideal for priceless paintings. Another reason the building is flush with the MacArthur is to hide parking and to preserve as much space as possible for the adjacent Museum Park.
The balance between elegance and function extends inside. Huge windows offer tantalizing, angled views of the water and downtown without distracting from what Collins promises will be world-class art. (PAMM is scheduled to open during Art Basel Miami Beach with an exhibit by Chinese über-artist Ai Weiwei.)
It's difficult to predict what a museum will be like before the art arrives, but Collins says it will be nothing like the "vault-like" old MAM at Government Center. Indeed, even with plastic wrap covering many of its Category 5 hurricane-proof windows, PAMM was soaked in dappled light during our visit. Soon, landscape architects will install 65-foot hanging gardens. A giant poinciana-filled plaza will connect the building with the new Miami Science Museum next door.
"This is a great moment, for us and for Miami," Collins said, stepping out onto the upper floor's wraparound balcony. Completing a $220 million project (including $100 million from county taxpayers) during the recession wasn't easy. But starting from scratch has serious advantages. PAMM's stilt-like design will protect the building and its art from storm flooding. It houses classrooms, movie auditoriums, and a restaurant overlooking the bay. "We don't have to drag a 120-year-old building into the 21st Century like museums in other cities," Collins said.
But not everything can be planned for. "Do you have a contingency plan for a python invasion?" Collins playfully asked PAMM public relations director Tracy Belcher at the end of the tour.
"We'll turn them into a permanent installation," she suggested.
"And just tell everybody it was on purpose," Collins added.