Friday, November 20, 2009

Miami's urban mess

 Alfredo Triff

By force of habit, we live in Miami accepting the degradation of its surroundings. Since urban changes take place slowly, we may not notice them because we move around the environment as part of our daily routines. One day, we realize that beauty is gone. Miami has become a weird mix of traffic-clogged highways, strip malls, cheap “pleasant villages,” parking-lot wastelands -with sparse green areas strewn in between- and plenty of sun with no shade. The construction is shoddy, the housing developments tedious, the architecture anti-functional. In spite of all the noise, few meaningful aesthetic standards are being set by private initiative or through city planning or zoning laws. As examples, take a look at three areas: Brickell Avenue, Liberty City, and the typical city-limit sprawl of suburbia.

Many people see Brickell as one of Miami's positive architectural achievements. Driving along I-95 south of downtown, one sees the collage of structures that have come to define Miami's cityscape. Most banks on Brickell are windowless glass boxes: Tall, austere, cold and inaccessible (in a way is the common image of every American city's downtown).

CONDO FEVER! (2005-2008)

How about design? These new condos are taller and sleeker. Some show a MIMO flavor with more thought-out asymmetry and better incorporation of parking vs. overall structure, but in terms of scale, they shadow the physical space around them (file under late-Capitalist "habitable area vs. profitable area" ratio).  Below, "50 Biscayne," a taller more utilitarian version of Enrique Gutierrez's 1963 Bacardi Building.

These structures can only be admired from a distance. Their main attraction consists of outside scenery. Walking around them is a dwarfing, alienating experience devoid of public amenities. Miami's "condo fever" was just a consequence of the bizarre organization of our lives by the forces of capital. A design where human interaction is hijacked by profit-maximization leading to social estrangement. This is the program: Daily-work-routine dispatches life from the office/box to the living/box with a box-on-wheels and the elevator in between. Then, human exchange is rare within these tall structures. You enter by car, park, go up the elevator and walk a narrow corridor to your apartment. People only coincide in the same common area momentarily, reluctantly. Given our "normal" social isolation, we prefer to avoid one another.

Overall, Brickell speaks of exile from the environment.1 These buildings look at the city from a superior, safe, and detached point of view. They represent a flamboyant separation in terms of income, lifestyle, and self-imposed isolation. Like old fortresses, they are gated, and can only be accessed by car; guards check visitors and strangers at each gate. Not too far away, in Liberty City, the poor remain poor and also isolated.

With the explosion of suburbia throughout America during the Sixties and Seventies, highway expansions decimated and dissected poor neighborhoods to the detriment of much needed cohesion to the city as a whole. With time awkward city ordinances and bad development practices only exacerbated segregation and depression in areas such as Liberty City. The high unemployment, pervasive crime, and poor tax base kept business away, and what went up in its place were ugly cheap establishments.2 Add to this the halfway houses and rehabilitation centers that continue to accumulate around these impoverished areas, and beauty all but disappeared. Middle-class America moved west of the city, creating the sprawl of a place such as Westchester. Most of these developments follow the quick-fix utilitarian model:

They're examples of mediocre construction: Poor design and horrible style reign. Many residents believe they're getting their money's worth, but the tradeoff is ominous. Far from city centers, with little greenery and unwalkable sidewalkless streets, developers keep adding ugly, stressful, car-polluting environments, devoid of any communal feeling.3

The sight has become familiar: monotonous twisting rows of single-family monotone units filled with plastic pipes, hollow walls, cheap moldings; some houses lack defined fronts and backs, but yes, they always have a front garage.

Breaking up the cookie-cutter housing, we get some respite in the form of shopping malls and multiplexes. This is not the old arcade of yesteryear, with an embedded network of familiar retailers and a variety of heterogeneous neighborhood shops. Rather, these big structures of no architectural importance, exhibiting ostentatious parking lots, a waste of asphalt and space. Their sole purpose is to house parallel rows of stores.

Sure, shopping malls try hard to entertain us, offering all the amenities possible so we don't feel as though we're there to spend our money.  No matter how hard they try, it's obvious most of our malls are still spaces filled with plenty of goods and food courts with bad food, but not really filling in the void of a real city center or town square, which offers more than merchandise. Which brings me to another fixture of our environment: the car, that old American emblem of modernity now turned into a paradigm of noise and pollution. As we rely on more and bigger gas-guzzling vehicles, we continue to try to solve traffic problems by building additional highways.

But in the end, new roads designed to decongest traffic only lead to more development, more suburban sprawl, and thus, more traffic. Rather than navigating pristine preserves, most of our beloved SUVs barrel down the same traffic-choked highways, past the same swaths of commercial blight and architectural dread, through the same gated communities, tacky golf-villas, and dull single-family outgrowths that the majority of Americans call home. Where are the parks, fountains, and boulevards we revere when we travel overseas?

A beautiful city needs beautiful designs that incorporate and play off the natural environment specific to the location -in our case the water and waterfront properties, the flora and fauna of the subtropics, the natural bright light, among many other assets. But creating more beautiful environments may require us to forego some pleasures we take for granted. Could we restrict the use and speed of vehicles and encourage public transportation? Will we stop segregating the poor and work to create safer, more integrated neighborhoods? Could we build streets that are interesting, accessible, and encourage community interaction? To achieve these goals, we may need to better comprehend how to reach them. If the goal is to have an attractive, functional city, the public must first understand what basic city planning and zoning means and then make sure our planners stick to them. More roads may simply mean more sprawl, the goal of alleviating traffic may not involve much construction at all. Simplicity, elegance, cohesion, and even functionality are related to beauty. But this beauty must be what we are about and not what we simply copy from inefficient models.
1Many of these buildings' tenants have bought properties here, escaping Latin America's political turmoil. 2The introduction of interstate highways gave the middle class in the market for new homes a subsidized means to get away from the red-lined ghettos of the inner cities and beyond the reach of mass transit, and out into the rural hinterlands where land was available for the FHA to insure mortgages on new single-family homes. But they also did much more. The highways hastened the decline of the inner cities not only because of this escape valve but also because of the physical nature of the highways themselves, given the way they sliced through neighborhoods, turning them into dusty, congested no-man's lands during their construction (David Willens, The Interstate Highway System and the Disfiguring of America, A Tale of Two Kinds of Cities: Part 5). In large cities in the United States, governments own as much as 45% of the developed land area and allocate most of these public lands for use as streets and highways. In a society that not only accepts, but exalts, private property in land, why does one observe so much open-access land?  3 Some studies show that High-growth areas nearly always translate into higher property taxes. One study in Dane County, Wisconsin, where the tax burden is among the highest in the United States, showed that while the county’s population grew 12 percent from 1990 to 1996, total property taxes soared 3.57 times faster than the population. Part of the reason is that developers rarely pay the long-term costs of building communities.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm twittering it around. Good luck.


JO%$% said...

Miami sucks!

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful. Thank you, you single-handedly described everything that's been bothering me about this city.

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