Where Does Miami’s Cityscape Go From here? The View From Top Architect Germane Barnes
The American writer Joan Didion, known for her stylish reportage on social and political rhetoric, once said what the city of Miami looked like to her.
“Meanwhile the construction cranes still hovered on the famous new skyline, which, floating as it did between a mangrove swamp and a barrier reef, had a kind of perilous attraction, like a mirage.”
Didion’s sharp observational eye, keenly woven into her documentation of the political and economical strives of 1980’s Miami, eerily rings true today. The construction cranes are still here, skylines have altered, and new architecturally driven tourist attractions have sprung up; queue the Design District and Brickell City Centre. It feels, sometimes, like all of this change happened in the blink of an eye. As evidenced by Didion’s own account, or anyone commuting in the Miami of today, all this construction has become normalized. The never-ending construction sites are simply part of the Miami landscape, perhaps the only visual eyesore against sun-drenched picturesque backdrops. Is this a sign of progress, or something else?
Miami is a city that is constantly “re-branding,” and difficult to summarize. It can be fast, and also slow, simultaneously. An island time sense of urgency coupled with an adrenaline rush enthusiasm to become purveyors of the future. Attracting itself as Silicon Valley of the Sunshine State, welcoming tech industry Titans with open arms, and establishing itself as leaders into the Bitcoin frontier. While Miami attempts to find its place within the hub of tech and finance, the city’s artistic presence remains vital. The “new skyline” through Didion’s eyes in the late 80’s is an even newer skyline today. And will continue to renew and change in years to come. But what are the architectural stakes for the city of Miami?
The Miami arts community is fortunate to have the architect and urban planner Germane Barnes whose vision and understanding is driving creative, impactful change in the Miami landscape. The Chicago born Barnes is currently the recipient of three prestigious architectural prizes; The 2021/2022 Rome Prize for Architecture, The Wheelwright Prize from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and The Architectural League of New York Prize. His three-peat of accolades hints he is well on his way to accomplishing more at 35 years old than most veteran architects. His work was recently on display at MoMA, part of the museum’s first ever all Black architectural exhibition. A Spectrum of Blackness: The Search for Sedimentation in Miami (2020) was an exploration of the dichotomy between architecture and Black spaces. Through college and everyday household staples, like spice racks, he comments on Black domestic life against displacement. The ongoing threat of rising sea levels in Miami, and how it has impacted Black communities in the past and present. Barnes is the former Designer in Residence for the Opa-Locka Community Development Cooperation (OLCDC) where he spearheaded a multisite urban revitalization project. Since the Wheelwright Prize was reintroduced in the last 15 years, Barnes is the first Black architect to receive the award.
For Barnes, the old inspires the new. Echoes of Brancusiesque designs remixed through clean lines, broad color strokes, with attention to Black domestic and city life. Who better than a young architect in a young city to weigh in on the current architectural state. Attempting to unwrap the enigma and allure of Miami’s constant architectural expansion, and provide his vision for today’s architectural rebranding.
“Miami is at a critical juncture. A lot of its more foundational neighborhoods, with foundational architectural character, are historically designated. So those neighborhoods are entrenched. They won’t be changed. However the rest of Miami is extremely young. And with anything that’s young you always want to be up to date with whatever is the new movement, or whatever is contemporary at the time. You see an influx of out of town architects coming to try and put their stamp in Miami. Cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York are already densified. Miami becomes that uncharted territory of ‘can I stake my claim and create a signifier in an American city?’ That can be both a positive or a negative. But it makes Miami a testing ground. Native Miamians don’t like that. Visitors and transplants don’t mind it.”
The attractive nature of Miami’s reinvention, potential, and constant change begs the question: is this ultimately a positive or negative for the city? Depends on who you ask, and how far this phenomena could spill into Miami’s surrounding neighborhoods. The Design District and Brickell City Centre, for example, attract and lure new visitors to the city. Whether it’s shopping, selfies, or dining, these architecturally driven attractions become Diderot effects. “All major cities want to have some resemblance of tourism. And a place like Miami depends on tourism. If your total economy is dependent on one means of income then you need to constantly reinvent yourself to continue to get new people to come. The Design District is just a new machination to attract visitors to want to spend their money.”
Miami, being the city it is, will have a new iteration of the Design District and a new iteration of whatever what was once “new.” Just like Didion’s “new skyline” is outdated today. Are there, if any, dangers towards Miami’s ambition of architectural acceleration?
“As long as it stays central to one location I don’t really care,” says Barnes.”As long as it isn’t interrupting the more culturally rich neighborhoods then what’s the big deal? If everything is in the Design District then what’s the ‘Design District.’ It’s completely manufactured. If these new buildings find themselves there, what are they interrupting? Versus, if they tried to plant that in Little Haiti, then we have a problem.”
ARCHITECTURE FOR CHANGE
In 2009 Barnes took an internship in Capetown, South Africa to work in underprivileged townships. It was during this period he learned that architecture can be an impactful positive agent, and the magnitude of this responsibility is in the hands of the architect. “That wasn’t something I learned in my undergraduate education. Capetown altered my entire trajectory and practice.” In addition to his architectural projects, Barnes is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture. Architecture as an agent for change is the vital lesson Barnes impresses upon his students. “You have a level of culpability, responsibility, and agency. You better acknowledge that. However you choose to use your power is your choice, but you definitely have power. But you can’t claim willful ignorance.”
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It is architects and visionaries like Barnes who can help determine the future of Miami’s architectural integrity, and steer the city towards change and progress. “I am extremely interested in the Black enclaves within Miami. Coconut Grove, Opa-Locka, and Overtown. To build something identifiable, something that’s a signifier, that’s something I aspire to.” Miami is a city synonymous with the term “melting pot,” but to what extent realistically? As a realist, never leaning towards one spectrum of optimism or pessimism, Barnes is someone who is well on their way, if not there already,to help Miami change through the medium of architecture and design. “It’s my job to create a dialogue and a conversation of the things I see. How can I advocate on behalf of those who might not have the vocabulary to explain the things they see in their built in environment. If I have those skill sets I can act as a translator of sorts.”
Upcoming projects from Barnes include an artistic installation in collaboration with Oolite Arts for Windows at Walgreens, located at 7340 Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. A renovation speculative gathering in Delray Beach. And Barnes will be featured at Chicago’s Biennale later this year, which is America’s largest architectural conference. He will soon begin his travels in Italy and North Africa researching non-white contributions to classical architecture, part of his awarded Wheelwright Prize.
For more information about Germane Barnes and Studio Barnes please visit: germanebarnes.com for updates and announcements.
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