Miami Musings

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The best way to discover the Art Deco heritage of Miami’s South Beach is on foot, says Riaan Jacob George

What does Miami’s South Beach represent for most people? Admittedly, the streets there ooze a certain je ne sais quoi – a unique flavour of sun-kissed hedonism, peppered with beach bars, bronzed bodies, oversized cocktails, all-night salsa soirées and swanky cars. But all this is not without context.

The city’s world-famous Art Deco architecture acts as a perfect backdrop to the Miami experience, both culturally and visually. The culture originated in the 1930s and merged into the urban fabric by the early 1950s. The neighbourhood was a hotbed of different art and architectural genres in Europe – Bauhaus, Art Nouveau, Expressionism and Cubism – all of which came together to form the Miami Art Deco genre.

The term “Art Deco” was first used in 1925 at Paris’ Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, an exhibition dedicated to the display of modern decorative arts. However, it was in the 1980s that interest in this style was rekindled and the term Art Deco began to be used generously. The

Great Depression of 1929 and the World Wars demanded a certain austerity in design, which was visible in the Art Deco style.

maiami art south beach

 

The best way to discover this unique heritage quarter in Miami is, of course, on foot. One stroll through South Beach’s Ocean Drive, and you will lose yourself in the Art Deco universe, dominated by magnificent, pastel-hued buildings and boutique hotels lining the waterfront.

It’s a sunny morning in Miami, and my guide ushers me into the plush lobby of The Tides hotel, which dates back to 1936. I learn that there are more than 1,000 buildings that are participating in the Historic Art Deco District’s inventory – and this is one of them. So this is a great start.

This wonderfully restored boutique hotel is exemplary of the Art Deco style and my guide begins my walking tour by pointing out the porthole windows and the ornate terrazzo lobby floor. Today, I am told, most of the Art Deco buildings along Miami’s Ocean Drive are converted into charming boutique hotels – the Carlyle, the Delano, the Raleigh, the Bentley and the National Hotel, to name a few.

A stone’s throw away is the former home of the late designer Gianni Versace decked up in his trademark Medusa motifs. The villa stands out among the Art Deco cluster in its visibly extravagant Baroque style.

Make it a point to stop at one of Miami’s most famous addresses – News Café, a laidback restaurant and a local favourite since 1988

As you stroll along the waterfront avenue, I recommend walking across the street from the buildings to better appreciate the facades – you will pass a string of Art Deco buildings, beach cafés, buzzing restaurants, boutiques and tattoo parlours, each with its unique architectural style. Walking into a hotel lobby to appreciate the terrazzo floors and Art Deco touches is not usually frowned upon, but photography is discouraged.

I can’t help but notice an underlying nautical theme among the Art Deco motifs. My guide tells me that this “Tropical Deco”, featuring motifs such as palm trees, waves and cruise ships, is unique to this Miami neighbourhood, as the architects wanted to give geographical context to the buildings.

There is a sense of joie de vivre on these streets, as strains of Latino music are audible from every corner. Make it a point to stop at one of Miami’s most famous addresses – News Café, a laidback restaurant and a local favourite since 1988. This American-diner-meets-European-café is perfect for an afternoon deli-style sandwich and lemonade. After sundown, this district transforms into a party hub. As the famous Art Deco neon lights illuminate the facades, the bars and restaurants brim with locals and laughter, eager to enjoy a slice of the good life in true South Beach style.

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