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An ocean of ideas

Miami Beach drew a lot upon New York's art deco; and on this count it had to come to terms with some unflattering observations. Fulbright research fellow, Mary N. Woods, dwells on them.


A FULBRIGHT research fellow working on a study of women architects, past and present, in India, Mary N. Woods recently spoke (at Sundar Mahal, under the auspices of the Prakriti Foundation) on the art deco architecture of Miami Beach. It was titled "Paradise Regained? Art Deco Architecture and the Reinvention of Miami Beach, Florida".

The lecture sought to highlight the lessons that Miami Beach has for the preservation and development of art deco districts around the world.

Let us touch first base. What is art deco? It is a more fashionable form of architectural design and decoration. It is of American and European origin; specifically, it owes a lot to French architecture. Though it started putting down roots in the early years of the 20th Century, it evolved as a full architectural model or form only in the 1930s. While it adopted a lot of classical themes such as the Egyptian pyramids and other motifs from the ancient world, it steadily became "with it" and started reflecting the modernist ethos. Art deco architecture before 1968 was not known as such; it was identified by different labels. "It was only in 1968 that the term art deco was coined," said Woods.

Woods' lecture explored how architecture exposed the sociological aspects of a place, as also how architecture kept pace with sociological changes.

Miami Beach was designed in the Mediterranean Revival style in the 1920s. This style combined Italian, North African, Southern Spanish and Moorish themes. The overall architecture was marked by arches, ziggurat roofs and stucco walls. There were bungalows galore. "In those days, it used to be known as the millionaires' playground," said Woods. Miami beach was experiencing a boom period.

However, the scene shifted from grey suits and gelled hair to workmen's flannels and greasy manes in the 1930s, as working and middle class Americans started to settle down there. "In the 1930s and the 1940s, it was known as the middle class utopia," said Woods. Construction of spire-like structures was very common during this period.

Miami Beach also took on a Jewish character as Jewish families settled there in the 1940s. "Jewish Americans felt that the Miami Beach's architecture recreated the village atmosphere," said Woods.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it became a haunt for retirees. "It was called God's great waiting room; because people were just waiting to die," she said.

Miami Beach drew a lot upon New York's art deco; and on this count it had to come to terms with some unflattering observations. "Its art deco was called a cheap imitation and travesty of the New York City's," she added.

The Miami Beach story has many strands of resilience.

In 1926, it was terribly hit by a hurricane. There was a great loss of life and property. Then the stock market crash sent it reeling. "However, Miami Beach recovered faster than the rest of the United States. It became a boom city once again," she said.

The "boom" got bigger and bigger with time. Today, Miami Beach Architectural District is dotted with celebrity houses; it has been the location for a number of popular flicks and tele-serials.

But it also has an underbelly with a few suppurating wounds. One of them is Gionni Versace's murder in his own Ocean Drive residence.

PRINCE FREDERICK

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