At first view, an ocean of history and culture separates the curators of a villa built in 1928 by Le Corbusier 20 miles northeast of Paris and a group fighting for the preservation of a graffiti-covered stadium built in the 1960s by the Bay of Miami. But near Versailles—not the palace but the restaurant of the same name in Miami’s Little Havana quarter—a panel discussion of preservation experts found common ground between efforts to protect and defend 20th century architectural heritage in France and in Florida.
By Clotilde Luce
Organized by the Alliance Française of Miami, the May 1 panel discussion brought together architects and professors from the University of Miami, the head preservationists of the Miami Beach Planning Department, and two special guests from the National Monument Center (Centre des Monuments Nationaux, CMN) in Paris.
The two French guests, Stéphanie Celle, curator of national monuments and state architect and urban planner, and Laurence Sabatié-Garat of the department of institutional and international relations, surprised many in attendance in describing the preponderant role that a handful of major sites in France (e.g. le Mont Saint Michel) have in ensuring the survival of less frequently visited sites. Even in France, where local associations and public powers are well aware of issues surrounding heritage preservation, arousing the public’s enthusiasm for 20th-century monuments remains a challenge.
For example, major efforts must be taken to draw even a modest number of visitors to the Villa Savoye, designed by Le Corbusier in the town of Poissy, 20 miles northeast of Paris, and highly venerated as an important step in the evolution of his work and of Modernism in architecture. Similarly for Mallet-Stevens’ Villa Cavrois, also designed in the late 1920s, in the town of Croix, near the Belgian border.
The CMN’s approach for the Villa Cavrois has been to create an interesting gestalt by bringing together not only the villa’s original furniture but also by encouraging visitors’ sensitivity to a physical approach of the villa’s overall environment without falling into the “theme park” trap that is often used in attracting visitors to heritage sites in the United States. In France, the State and the Center for Historical Monuments guarantee the preservation of such exceptional villas, even when they draw few visitors.
In contrast, business and even show business are called upon to save prime examples of 20th century architectural heritage in South Florida such Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, as William Cary of the city’s Planning Department explained at the panel discussion. Transformed in 1960 into one of the first commercial pedestrian streets in the United States, Lincoln Road, with its playful modern furniture designed by the architect Morris Lapidus, is an enormous success to judge by the flow of pedestrians toward stores such as Banana Republic and the Apple Store.
Nevertheless, the public lack of enthusiasm for pure examples of Modernism led to the international preservationist movement DoCoMoMo, as Jean-François LeJeune, one of the movement’s South Florida co-founders, explained.
Without the funding of a government-funded organization such as the CMN or of the State itself, as in France, the role of associations remains essential in the United States. Therefore the real suspense of the evening’s discussion centered around the delicate question of the Miami Marine Stadium, a 6500-seat stadium built in 1963 with stands directly facing the bay and with an incredible view of downtown Miami in the distance. The stadium long attracted fans of speedboat racing and of concerts played on a floating stage, including Ray Charles, Queen and Sammy Davis, Jr.
The roof, spread out like a stretched origami and suspended over 109 yards, constituted the world’s longest concrete cantilever roof when it was built. The Marine Stadium is also considered the last surviving structure of the Modernist style known as Pan-American. The stadium’s architect Hilario Candela, who came out of the Havana School of Architecture, was on hand that evening to meet guests from the CMN.
The stadium was abandoned after the devastating passage of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and now, without the intervention of preservations, would be destined to disappear in favor of yet another mall and more so-called “world class condos.”
Following a relentless campaign by the association Friends of the Marine Stadium, the structure was placed in 2009 on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of important threatened sites, then on the list of the World Monuments Fund. This year, Miami government officials granted the stadium a two-year reprieve during which 30 million dollars would need to be raised for its repair and restoration.
“What’s encouraging,” said Stéphanie Celle of the CMN, “is the way in which people voluntarily got involved to save this architectural heritage. I think that we can learn from you because of such dedicated involvement. In France we have very strong laws [concerning heritage sites] and as long as the State has departments to apply those laws we manage to conduct a heritage policy of quality. But at a given time we’ll need the local population to participate in that heritage policy, as you’ve done.”
What direction did she think should be explored in the stadium’s rehabilitation and use?
“I have the feeling that economic questions are very tied up in this, and even if this enormous structure is protected as “a historical monument” there’s going to have to be some flexibility in order to develop a use for it. That means looking at with an eye to the structure’s quintessence, its roof, and the magnificent gift of its landscape. The rest, in my opinion, can move…”
The stadium currently looks like a forgotten temple from the jungle in an Indian Jones movie. Under a ramp that’s already covered by graffiti, young people are ready to spray paint new murals. A student and her friends are using this concrete background for a fashion shoot. In the stands, they and others smoke, send text messages, and watch jet-skiers go by. This 20th-century architectural heritage has found a new generation of “friends.”
For Laurence Sabatié-Garat, once the stadium’s restoration is underway, it would be a shame to eliminate the graffiti, which is a part of its history of abandonment and survival.
“Some speaks of keeping on some of [the graffiti] and ‘framing’ it,” she said, “but the most significant aspect of graffiti is freedom.”
Promoting conservation without being conservative, the experts from the CMN have made new friends in Miami.
© 2012, Clotilde Luce
Clotilde Luce is a travel writer and preservationist. She co-wrote “Art Deco in Shanghai and Miami Beach” (2009) and has freelanced for Libération, Vogue Hommes, Fortune, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. As contributing editor at Home magazine she has covered architecture in Miami, Kyoto, Royan and Rio. Luce hosted bilingual radio shows on Radio France Internationale, was a Paris stringer for BBC Radio 5, and recently produced a story for NPR South Florida.
This article was originally written in French for the Paris-based Association des journalistes du patrimoine. Translation by Gary Lee Kraut.