South Miami-Dade Performing Arts Center a work of art

September 25, 2011
"Take your hands," says the architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia, "as if you were clapping after a performance. Then pull them apart ever so slightly and look at them."

Now look at Arquitectonica's new South Miami- Dade Cultural Arts Center, and you will see the central architectural motif — two folded planes wrapping around the sides of a vast glass faηade. It's a subtle enough gesture — a building where the side walls clasp it in an embrace. But this is a building that pays homage to the act and art of performance, and so the metaphor of applause is both appealing and persuasive. The building is its own best playbill.

This $51-million two-building arts complex in Cutler Ridge is a pleasing, jaunty, spirited work with walls that tilt playfully — a longtime architectural hallmark of the internationally renowned Miami-based Arquitectonica of which Fort-Brescia is a principal. Its main three-story building includes a 966-seat proscenium-stage theater and a black box space that accommodates 129. Just across a paved courtyard (or art walk) is a single-story classroom and studio building.

Although there was a "soft" opening over the summer, the center makes its official, formal debut Saturday.

The roots of this cultural center go back to the period just after 1992's Hurricane Andrew, when this area — now the town of Cutler Bay — was devastated. Revitalization came slowly, but the idea of a multipurpose performing arts center gained momentum as Miami-Dade sought to create performance facilities at the far ends of a very linear county. This complex is 20 miles south of downtown Miami but serves a region that extends well into the Florida Keys.

Arquitectonica was selected for the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in 1999. It is not the firm's first such building; that distinction goes to a performing arts complex in Dijon, France, which was completed in 1998. It was followed by a fairly distinguished array of cultural facilities including the Miami Beach home of the Miami City Ballet, the Miami Children's Museum, the Bronx Museum and many others. That experience proved deeply useful in this project, especially when it came to those essential practical considerations that are too often ignored.

"All along our concern was how it would feel as a patron moving from the car to the building and … right down to the service carts," points out Laurinda Spear, also an architect and Arquitectonica's other principal. (She and Fort-Brescia are married.)

But it is artistic ideas that prevail here, most of them expressed abstractly, meaning they are open to interpretation. That makes us all part of the artistic process.

There's a motif — it appears on all the stucco walls, and reappears in the arrangement of the auditorium seats and on the splendid custom-fabricated velour curtain. Spear thought of that pattern as "rain," almost as if the drops left their mark as they cascaded down the walls. It is sets of long and short dashes, syncopated and jazzy enough to seem almost like music, or some sort of dance notation or even — most particularly on the smaller studio/classroom building — splashes of paint. "It's a very interpretive, or interpretable, building," says Spear.

Motifs repeat in ways that can make seeing the building a bit of a visual treasure hunt. There's an elliptical Reynobond aluminum composite metal canopy over the entrance, and inside as part of the Art in Public Places contribution, are two elliptical sculptures by the Robert Chambers (respectively 10 and 12 tons of Vermont marble, carved from the same giant piece) that reiterate the theme.

A different kind of movement is expressed in the swirling terrazzo lobby floor — a design that is carried outside as well. A ground-level color scheme starts with the plaza and the lobby floor and continues throughout — to be found again in the upholstery of the seats (a fabric specially designed by Spear), in tile in the bathrooms and in the design of the curtain. In the specifications they are eggplant, brandy, copper, colonial brick and red — which translate into shades of purple and red, mostly, with an ochre-like yellow in the mix.

Most often, performing arts centers are in the midst of it all, downtown or near a center of commerce with museums and parks close at hand. This complex is far from all that, on Southwest 211th Street backing up against the Black Creek Canal. Its nearest neighbors include the South Miami-Dade Government Center with courts, a library, fire station, police station and service facilities, including a county truck wash, and the sprawling Southland Mall.

Thus the complex needed to be grand without being grandiose, a tricky balance to say the least. It needed a memorable enough silhouette and a certain amount of showmanship. It needed to blend in — at least a bit — by day and become a dazzling beacon, a showcase for all the arts, by night.

It was the luck of geography that the site had strict compass coordinates, allowing Arquitectonica the luxury of a three-story glass wall that faces north. The architects chose to site the building urbanistically, with broad stairs leading down to a sidewalk along the street even though the setting is currently fully suburban. It's an optimistic gesture that someday there will be a "there" there in Cutler Bay.

If you pass by during the daytime, you might look in and see flashes of colored light from the large-scale installation ( Light Field) also by Chambers, the first major public commission for this widely regarded Miami artist.

Light Field involves a punctured panelite screen that follows a specific architectural grid established by Arquitectonica and divides the upper levels of the auditorium hallways from the atrium lobby . The metal mesh of what is more or less a kinetic mural is laced with colored LED lights that are programmed to do their own dance. Chambers' work interweaves art and science in a score played out in LED lights that moves from calm and soothing to fast-paced. At times, the whole lobby seems washed with light, especially at night when the glass wall reflects the color back into the space.

It is at night that the glass faηade becomes a kind of curtain into a different world of color and movement, framing Chambers' work and animated by the movement and bustle of the theatergoers, transforming the patrons into performance artists themselves.

That the complex was kept small was entirely purposeful. "It was our idea that a smaller space would be versatile, flexible, nimble," says Michael Spring, Miami-Dade County's director of Cultural Affairs. The 966-seat theater has an orchestra pit with three setting heights, allowing the stage to grow or shrink. Likewise, a false proscenium arch — a lovely work by the Haitian-born Miami artist Edouard Duval Carrie — allows for more intimate productions.

Arquitectonica's patterns appear in an even more abstract way on the walls of the big hall, with acoustic panels of wood in five veneers of varying shades, ebony, mahogany, macassar, wenge and teak. "It's not in any way static," says Fort-Brescia. "It's dynamic."

And so it is. The architecture began with a central conceit, of two hands clapping, a dynamic act in and of itself and one that tells you that the essence of the architecture is one of respect and appreciation.

In this case, it goes both ways. Certainly the arts are being nurtured and cherished here — starting with the art of architecture. But this is also a building that pays homage to both the performers and the patrons.

"We built a jewel box," says Spring. "The building is exactly as we hoped and dreamed it would be."

South Miami-Dade performing arts center a work of art
BY Beth Dunlop - The Miami Herald