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An American Biennial

Notes from Clifford Pearson
Senior Editor

Photograph © Robin Hill

The Casablanca Hotel, Miami, from “Miami Modern Architecture—A Photography Exhibition.”

Venice has one. Buenos Aires has one. São Paulo has one. But until this year, no place in the United States had an architecture biennial. Somehow the notion of an international event celebrating architecture (usually alternating years with an art confab) was foreign to us. Maybe it was the international aspect of these gatherings that struck the wrong chord in this country. The U.S. is so big some people think we don’t need to look beyond our borders. Or perhaps no one thought enough Americans would be interested in a big show on architecture.

Well, Miami just changed all that. Bienal Miami + Miami Beach 2001 kicked off on October 6 with a series of events that included an exhibition of work from around the world and talks by Rodolfo Machado, Zaha Hadid, and Enrique Norten. The masterminds behind the Bienal are a pair of professors from Florida International University (FIU), Jaime Canavés and Carlos Casuscelli, who twisted arms, pushed open doors, and generated enough creative energy to make it all happen. Sponsors for the event included the Miami Chapter of the AIA, the Pan American Federation of Architects’ Associations, the Miami Design Preservation League, the Wolfsonian Institute, and FIU.

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Instead of trying to stand by itself, the Bienal hooked up with Miami’s Design + Architecture, a month-long celebration of design that was heading into its third year of operation. Backed by people from the Arango Design Foundation, Florida Atlantic University, and the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation, D+A takes aim at a cross-section of south Florida residents and tourists. This year it delivered a program that included film presentations, a photography exhibition entitled “Miami Modern Architecture” (which is headed for the Municipal Arts Society in New York in March), lectures, book signings, events for children, even a sandcastle-building competition. The goal is to show how design influences people’s daily lives, from the shape of a chair to the future of urban transportation.

“The U.S. was lacking a big design statement, a formal rendezvous of architects from around the world,” says Casuscelli, explaining why he and Canavés developed the Bienal. “We wanted to get a lot of architects together to discuss what they’re doing and bring it to the general public,” adds Casuscelli. Although a biennial event should happen only every other year, Casuscelli and Canavés are hoping to put together something next year to capitalize on the momentum they created this year and call attention to the start of Enrique Norten’s tenure as dean of the school of architecture at FIU next fall.

In addition to an exhibition of 70 projects from dozens of countries, the Bienal included a student competition to design a lifeguard’s station and a competition to design scattered-site housing in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.

As the unofficial capital of Latin America and one of the most international of U.S. cities, Miami seems like the perfect place for the country’s first architecture biennial. A few nights at one of Miami Beach’s restored Art Deco hotels, a good meal at one of Little Havana’s Cuban restaurants, a stroll down Ocean Drive, and a few hours of frenzied dancing at one of South Beach’s hot clubs set just the right mood for appreciating architecture. Context supports content.

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