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Miami shows how conservation can be combined with change

Paul Finch
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The mantra ‘complementary but not a copy’ is a useful guide to interventions affecting architectural heritage, says Paul Finch

The Miami Design Preservation League does excellent tours of the South Beach Art Deco district. Our guide on a recent visit was Joel Levine, formerly of Brooklyn (with an accent to prove it), who was a font of information about a host of buildings we inspected, occasionally going inside, in the course of a two-and-a-half-hour walk.

The Deco district nearly came a cropper under the usual pressures of real estate speculation and declining demand, but managed to survive – often just in terms of the façade but no matter – and is now a good reason why tourism flourishes in this part of Miami and Miami Beach, attracted by a dynamic architectural scene.

Leslie, ocean drive, miami beach, fl

Leslie, ocean drive, miami beach, fl

Source: Elisa Rolle (commons.wikimedia.org)

Leslie (Albert Anis, 1937), Ocean Drive, Miami Beach Art Deco District

Levine cited the phrase that informs the introduction of new architecture in the Deco district, that it should be ‘complementary but not a copy’. This struck me as a motto that might well be applied elsewhere. As it happens, that attitude is alive and well in London, for example in respect of WilkinsonEyre’s recent reworking of the building in Finsbury Circus, next to Lutyens’ Britannic House.

The circus façade has been reworked in a serious contemporary manner, even though a secondary elevation at the rear of the building has had to be preserved for heritage reasons. (Unusually, this apparent lack of consistency works perfectly well because the ‘back’ is in fact a proper façade onto a proper street.) The biggest design challenge was indeed to be complementary to Lutyens rather than producing a silly Classical clone, and in this the design succeeds very well.

Elsewhere in the City of London, the latest architectural sensation is Foster + Partners’ Bloomberg headquarters building, a hymn to technology, workspace thinking and public realm. It is a relatively low-rise building, thus relating more to medieval London rather than the high-rise ‘Eastern Cluster’ which is making such a distinctive mark on the London skyline – rather a good one in my view, though it would be sensible to fill in the gap between the highest towers and the Walkie-Talkie, rather than leaving the latter in splendid isolation.

Is Classicism simply a stylistic device, or an architecture of integrity informed by Classical idioms and geometries

As it happens, Bloomberg is quite close to Lutyens’ Midland Bank building at 27 Poultry, now being converted into an upmarket hotel. Other than height, it has no particular architectural connection and there is no reason why it should. The City is littered with very odd Classical pastiche buildings of little merit, clumsy attempts to fit in which betray an utter lack of confidence in the contemporary world and in contemporary architecture.

This is not of course to deny that Classical architecture can be contemporary, in the sense that if it is designed today, how could it be anything but? The question is whether the Classicism is simply a stylistic device, a skin-deep impersonation of real Classicism, or alternatively an architecture of integrity that is informed by Classical idioms and geometries.

With the latter I have no problem, though in respect of commercial buildings it is an incredibly difficult trick to pull off. The best exponent in this country is Demetri Porphyrios, whose work addresses the dilemmas of working within a tradition but extending it to embrace the new rather than forcing the new into a historical straitjacket. That is why I like the attitude of those Miami Beach preservationists, who in the best traditions of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, do not want the present to ape the past, but nor do they want to destroy history.

Is it possible to combine new with old? Of course it is, but it presents all sorts of dilemmas (or opportunities) for architects across the world – not least those contemplating solutions to London’s housing shortage. Of which more next week. 

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