By: Shayne Benowitz
When you first encounter Miami Beach, one of the unique features you’re sure to notice—aside from the endless coastline of aquamarine waters—is the colorful hodgepodge of architecture on display.
Whether it’s the pastel, streamline flourishes of Art Deco or the sumptuous tile and stucco of Mediterranean Revival, Miami Beach’s architecture is part of its character.
One of the most distinctive and interesting styles is what’s known as MiMo or Miami Modern. With a playful space age aesthetic and a touch of ‘50s kitsch, this is Miami’s tropical resort riff on the Mid-Century Modernist architecture that was sweeping the rest of the world after World War II.
Thanks to groups like the Miami Design Preservation League, MiMo architecture has been lovingly preserved for all to encounter and enjoy today.
Miami’s Architectural Evolution
In order to appreciate where MiMo came from, it helps to understand the evolution of Miami Beach’s architecture through the decades. A city incorporated in 1915, Miami Beach is one of the youngest in the country, and in a way, it’s still growing up today. Like any new settlement, the first style of architecture is known as Vernacular, meaning built with materials that are found naturally in the environment. For Miami Beach, this was limestone and pinewood.
Early settlers like Carl Fisher and Newt Roney had big plans for grand resorts along Biscayne Bay and the beach, but the hurricane of 1926 followed by the stock market collapse in 1929 changed the shape of Miami Beach’s development. Mediterranean Revival was a popular style on the beach in the 1920s and ‘30s with romantic designs reminiscent of buildings found in Spain and Italy. Think, stucco facades, tile roofs, balconies, and arched windows, meant to give Miami Beach an air of European Riviera glamour. One of the most prominent examples of Mediterranean Revivial architecture on the beach is Casa Casuarina on 8th and Ocean, also known as the former Versace Mansion, which today is a fine dining restaurant and hotel.
Art Deco is perhaps the architectural style that Miami is most famous for, with its streamlined symmetry, stepped ziggurat rooflines, and colorful relief facades. Miami Beach actually has one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the country. Erected in the 1930s and ‘40s, these buildings can be found along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue between 6th and 23rd Streets.
MiMo Architecture & Hotels
This brings us up to date to the MiMo architectural movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, which brought a greater interplay between the indoor and outdoor features of a building. With MiMo came courtyards and catwalks, balconies and breeze blocks, cantilevered rooflines with playful acute angles, delta wing accents reminiscent of aviation and the space age, sweeping curved walls, bean pole columns, and cheese hole accents. MiMo architecture was playful, eccentric, and even extravagant while also adhering to a geometrical aesthetic inspired by the modern art movement of the time.
This style was implemented in both grand beachside resorts and also on modest garden apartments in Miami Beach. Today, there are three districts to explore this architectural style: The Morris Lapidus Mid-20th Century Historic District, the North Beach Resort Historic District, and the Normandy Shore & Normandy Isles National Register District. There’s even a district on Biscayne Boulevard lined with motels built in this style.
Morris Lapidus designed some of the most impressive examples of MiMo in Miami Beach. In his one-mile long historic district, 12 of the 14 properties are built in the MiMo style, and Lapidus designed five of the most impressive. Two of his most iconic are the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc, which are next door to each other.
The Fontainebleau was built with a sweeping curved façade that opens up onto a grand poolside area accessible by a grand staircase. The dramatic staircase is a key feature at the Fontainebleau. Inside the lobby is the famous “stairway to nowhere.” Purely for show, women would make their entrance by sashaying down these stairs. Today, it still makes for a great photo op. The black and white bowtie marble floor at the Fontainebleau is another iconic MiMo detail, playing with both geometry and extravagance.
While MiMo is associated with elegance and glamour, the breezy, yet modest garden apartments found in Miami Beach are also a result of this movement. These are often two-story high apartment complexes with buildings mirroring each other connected by a courtyard and outdoor catwalks. The tranquil, shady respite of the courtyard proved to be a desirable design for Miami’s subtropical temperatures and lifestyle.
Whether built for the extravagant upper crust or the middle-class American tourist, Miami Modern makes for some of the most delightful architecture in the city. Some landmark MiMo buildings on the mainland include the Bacardi Building and the Vagabond Motel. Keep your eyes peeled as you traverse the streets of Miami. What elements of MiMo architecture do you see?
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