In advance of the annual pilgrimage to the Magic City for Art Basel Miami Beach, Mark Ellwood reports on Miami's ever-expanding art scene and identifies great new havens for the good life. Also check out our snapshot of the myriad other fairs celebrating art and design.

Every December for the past thirteen years the art world has flocked en masse to Miami, lured by the multiple fairs, exhibitions, parties and events that have mushroomed around Art Basel Miami Beach. Collectors, curators and art-business folk are heading south determined to make every date in their minutely planned schedules. But they are just as intent on taking in the season’s crop of the Magic City’s ever-expanding non-art offerings. Seemingly perpetual sunshine and swathes of golden beaches are nice, but they are nothing new. A slew of recently opened hotels, restaurants and shops, both on the beach side and the mainland – that’s what’s new.

With the main fair occupying the Miami Beach Convention Center and satellite venues scattered among South Beach, Wynwood and the Design District, the art world knows not to descend on the Art Deco District for accommodations anymore. After all, the Delano’s once-startling Philippe Starck-designed renovation, which made it a celebrity favourite and mecca for late-night mingling, dates from 1994, and many hotels have since followed in its wake. Instead, the art crowd is increasingly looking to Mid Beach, roughly from 23rd up to 63rd Street, where the most recent – and perhaps the most ambitious – hotels are opening.


As the sandbar’s social centre in the Sinatra-and-swingers era after the Second World War, Mid Beach was a happening place and a design Petri dish, where architects Norman Giller, Morris Lapidus and others deployed their exuberant style, Miami Modernism (MiMo), rebuking the coldness of the prevailing International Style while incorporating the elements of fun, glamour and excess that vacationers demanded. Sadly, by the end of the 20th century, Mid Beach had lost its lustre, and MiMo’s masterpieces had slowly devolved into crash-pads for package holidaymakers.

In recent years, thankfully, a number of investors have taken interest in overlooked Mid Beach gems and their attendant stretches of waterfront. The splashiest reconception may be that of the former Saxony Hotel, designed by Roy F. France and built in 1948. Considered the most expensive and lavish resort of its time, it was – wait for it – the very first air-conditioned property on the beach. Since its purchase by Argentine developer Alan Faena a few years ago, the Saxony has become the ultraluxurious and exclusive Faena Miami, a sister property to Faena’s Casa Claridge’s (also in Mid Beach) and his eponymous Buenos Aires hotel. The Faena Miami is just one element of what locals now call the Faena District, from 32nd to 36th Streets, on both sides of Collins Avenue, which the developer is dotting with residential, retail and cultural projects, including the multipurpose Rem Koolhaas-designed Faena Forum, scheduled to open in the new year. For the hotel renovations, Faena tapped talents who know a thing or two about luxurious settings: Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann and his production- and costume-designer wife, Catherine Martin. The pair came up with the decorating scheme for the 169 rooms and the staff uniforms. Fittingly, Faena also installed a 3,000-square-foot theatre for live cabaret shows. The starry roster of on-site chefs includes Top Chef alumni and Asian food-truck titan Paul Qui as well as Francis Mallmann, an Argentine who has won plaudits for his asado-style grilling.


For his part, hotelier Ian Schrager – whose Delano arguably changed South Beach forever – commandeered another distressed historic Mid Beach property, the Seville, and worked in collaboration with Marriott International to transform it into the splashy Edition, which opened last December. Designed by Yabu Pushelberg/I.S.C. Design Studio of New York and Toronto, the 294-room hotel has kept traces of its past (marble floors and gold mosaic tiles in the lobby, for instance), but its 26 “limited-edition” residences, conceived by Minimalist maestro John Pawson, are all new – and selling fast. At this Edition, global restaurant magnate Jean-Georges Vongerichten makes his Miami debut with the Matador Room and Market, a combination gourmet-casual eatery whose offerings range from raw and ceviche bars to pizza.

For all the buzz about Mid Beach, innovative hospitality continues to develop at the northern edge of South Beach. There, on the site of the Roney Palace resort (and of the Gansevoort and the Perry as well), Barry Sternlicht – of Starwood Capital Trust, Starwood Property Trust and, of course, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide – has debuted his 1 Hotel, the prototype for a new eco-luxe concept, where some walls are lined with salvaged driftwood and “Do Not Disturb” signs are made from cardboard used to ship the hotel’s building materials.

Just like the Edition, 1 Hotel offers both guest suites (numbering 417) and residential units. Stop in for a cocktail at the wittily named, Colicchio-owned bar Tom on Collins or for a meal at his Beachcraft restaurant. Nearby, the Nautilus, a new project from Thompson Hotels founder Jason Pomeranc, is housed in one of the first hotels Morris Lapidus ever designed; this time, the hotel’s original name was preserved. The 250-room property reopened this autumn, after a two-year overhaul that included adding a signature restaurant by celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli and the Nautilus Cabana Club, whose outdoor saltwater pool, bar and backyard lawn with Bolivian hammocks overlooking the beach are sure to attract many guests. 


But enough about the latest sleeping and dining options. Miami Beach has long been renowned for its after-hours drinks-and-dance scene, and developments are taking place on this front as well. The mega-clubs on which it built its notorious reputation are mostly gone – indeed, the 1,500-capacity Mansion shuttered recently. Instead, the after-dark emphasis is on smaller, more upscale venues, whether clubs, lounges or bars. Dance and loud-music enthusiasts should note that pioneering 1990s South Beach club promoter Chris Paciello (a reformed Cosa Nostra member) is about to revisit his glory days yet again by opening Rockwell, a 450-person boîte – blending New York music, Los Angeles cool and Miami energy, Piacello hopes – on Washington Avenue.


Those who are partial to sophisticated drinks and conversation should be aware that Miami’s cocktail culture is changing after long being hobbled by the beach’s reliance on bottle service. A new vibe is emerging, thanks to local talents such as Gabe Orta and Elad Zvi of Bar Lab. After the pair first opened the Broken Shaker as a pop-up experiment in the renovated hipster hostel The Freehand on Indian Creek Drive, the bar became a hit with guests and eventually a permanent fixture on the site. And although it opened only in October, Sweet Liberty Drinks & Supply Company is an immediate contender on the cocktail scene: Operated by longtime beachside-bar fixture John Lermayer, who first made a name for himself at the Delano, Sweet Liberty could be the ideal spot for an aperitif following an afternoon at the nearby Bass Museum. (Sweet Liberty also serves comfort food, house-made sodas and bottle cocktails.) 

Night-time fun is followed by bright morning, and a few classic Miami Beach spots farther south deserve a nostalgia-tinged breakfast detour for their recent freshening up. After both locations of beloved Cuban diner David’s Café were forced to close due to rising rents (causing much local outcry), owner Adrian Gonzalez hunted down a stand-in site on the corner of Alton Road and 9th Street; as with its predecessors, the best place to enjoy a stiff cafecito there is at the street-facing counter. And although the signature teepees of 1990s mainstay Nikki Beach continue to lure crowds after dark, the addition this summer of a daytime cafe makes it an appealing place to eat breakfast after a morning run along the beach, lolling alone in a wicker swing or striking up conversation at the communal table.

The Magic City continues to evolve outside the sandbar. For instance, just north of Downtown’s business district, the Park West warehouse district has shifted key. Take Libertine, which discreetly opened this summer: It’s hidden behind a nondescript door in classic speakeasy style and decorated with more than a whiff of Britishness – green velvet curtains, a marble fireplace – and a floor tiled with pennies. Make like a butler on a bender and order a slug of the house-made moonshine from the barrel behind the bar. Another weeks-old Downtown nightspot, the bi-level El Tucan explicitly tips a trilby to the classic supper clubs of the 1940s, with Murano glass chandeliers and ample tropical foliage. Chef Jean-Paul Lourdes – an alum of kitchens run by Joël Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire – serves Latin American food at twice-nightly settings, while the eleven-piece house band, led by 2013 Best Tropical Album Grammy Award-winner Marlow Rosado, delivers an assortment of Afro-Cuban-inflected jazz alongside such guest soloists as Tito Puente, Jr.


Elsewhere on the mainland, the Design District’s streets are growing ever busier, thanks to the determination of entrepreneur Craig Robins. Since the late 1990s, Robins has masterminded the neighbourhood’s emergence from its former self, an area then known as Buena Vista, which had fallen into decline. The developer continues to focus on luring major flagships to open on and around 40th Street, a largely successful attempt to create a serious rival to longtime luxury-shopping destination Bal Harbour Shops. Recent Design District attractions range from Eric Clough’s now five-year-old but still dazzling one-way mirrors and riddle-covered tiles for the Christian Louboutin boutique to the just-opened, mesmerising Aranda/Lasch-designed Tom Ford megastore, its facade pleated like a neat origami bird.

Robins has also deeded land in the area for a museum scheduled to open in 2017, the Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by Spanish architects Aranguren & Gallegos and funded by local collectors Norman and Irma Braman. Robins and the Bramans are the latest addition to a well-established Miami tradition of deep-pocketed collectors who fund edgy contemporary spaces while helping to promote the arts in the city. It’s been only six years since Rosa de la Cruz and her husband, Carlos, unveiled the 30,000-square-foot de la Cruz Collection in the Design District, but it’s been fifteen since real estate developer Martin Z Margulies opened his 45,000-square-foot Warehouse in Wynwood, and more than 20 since Donald and Mera Rubell established their Kunsthalle in a 45,000-square-foot former Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse, also in Wynwood.


Another shining example of this strong tradition, which has helped Miami grow into a global arts capital, lies in the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), a public-private partnership in the new Museum Park in Downtown Miami. A distant heir to the city’s Center for Fine Art (1984) and Miami Art Museum (1994), the two-year-old, 200,000-square-foot contemporary-art-focused PAAM owes much of its existence to the collection and funding of Argentine-born real estate developer Jorge M Pérez, yet another of Miami’s collector-builders. For its spectacular design, Pritzker Prize-winning firm Herzog & de Meuron took inspiration from Stiltsville, a cluster of wooden shacks in the shallow waters a few hundred yards off the southern tip of Key Biscayne. Like the shacks, PAMM is built on stilts, with a huge wraparound deck; like them – and like art and Miami itself – it seems to be looking out into the new and unknown without fear.

Mark Ellwood writes regularly for Departures, WSJ and Bloomberg. He is also the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World.

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