University of Miami Dean Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk relates her prolific experience in urban planning and campus management to fashion, and cautions that the tough environmental issues that the city faces in the near future will require the design communities’ efforts to create resilient and adaptive tactics to cope with rising sea levels.
ARQ: Can you speak about the design for the new UM architecture building and how its design relates to the changing focus of the architecture program?
Elizabeth: The new architecture building is a design studio and it’s intended to be a flexible workspace, so that we could really move students and faculty around in it over time, as the need arises—which is, of course, as you know, drastically needed in this school. We are in these delightful historical buildings, which have some natural light on two sides, but they’re very narrow and they’re always the same. And so we needed a different kind of space, and your firm has designed a wonderful loft space for us that we look forward to. People are already saying some of the faculty are worried about who’s going to get to be in it.
ARQ: That’s a good sign.
Elizabeth: Yes. I think the faculty of the school, who are very varied and have various directions and beliefs, have always agreed that the urban aggregation of buildings is like bringing different kinds of people together and that there is a shared space and place that different buildings and different people make. The new building represents what’s going on now in architecture, which is a very straightforward rational and technical response to need and to position. So, you know, it’s a very straightforward loft space. And then in reaction to its orientation, the bend in the roof is really incredibly intelligent, but it’s also minimal, so it relates back to the classroom buildings.
ARQ: How do you perceive the intersection of fashion and architecture or urban design? In the case of your project in the Design District, there’s a huge overlap between what you’re doing on an urban level and what’s happening in the fashion world.
Elizabeth: It’s evident in the Design District because every store is going to have its own design. When you’re a shopping center, every store has its own design, but there’s a kind of framework for everything, a structure for everything, but this is truly going to be like separate buildings. It’s really going to feel urban in the best way. As you walk down the street or the paseo it will be constantly changing.
ARQ: It’s going to feel like a neighborhood—a shopping neighborhood.
Elizabeth: You’re losing that in so many cities, like Midtown Manhattan, because it’s all getting to be big buildings and the little pieces that great cities are made of are being lost. That’s always the most interesting parts of cities. It’s not very interesting to walk by the Louvre. Where things are constantly changing, it’s a different story. That’s hard to do in our time because of scale.
ARQ: Now everybody is concerned about walking to work and riding bikes to the city.
Elizabeth: And I think at least in South Florida we understand that we’re now making a permanent city. For a long time it was an interim city. It was the inaugural city. It was the small wooden buildings or the one-story shops, and now we’re building for a long future. So there has to be some idea of, if not timelessness, sustainability, resilience and long-term benefit. Now the caveat is that there is something else going on called tactical urbanism, which is, when you can’t make that long-term investment, you make change by doing something interim and less expensive. I don’t know if you knew the project that was done on Biscayne Boulevard, but they took a block of Biscayne under the tracks by the metrorail and they took all the cars out and just laid down a lawn for a week or two weeks last fall. They put out chairs and people immediately started bringing their dogs out and the DDA [Downtown Development Authority] actually paid for it. But very often people will do that. Somebody will go plug coins into a meter and make a little café in the parking space, or put lawn down in the parking space for a day. This is a kind of young people’s approach to change in the city.
ARQ: You know, we were talking with Ray Fort just a couple of days ago and he started his sentence with, “And so, when Miami Beach is under water...” What will it take to mobilize the city?
Elizabeth: I heard a lot about this because I was on the committee for the county, and I learned a way to think about it. There’s mitigation and there’s adaptation, but the adaptation will be that you can’t dam it; we’re not Holland. It comes up from below. The other issue is salt-water intrusion into the drinking water supply. But the real thing is flooding. You will probably, at some point, have to say there are some low investment, very little public benefit, low-elevation places that we may stop servicing. They can stay out there if they want to, but we’re not going to spend money there. Where we will need to spend money is where the job centers are, like Brickell and Downtown and maybe parts of Miami Beach, to ensure a longer future.
Everybody needs to be talking about this. First of all, everyone needs to understand it so it’s not scary and people don’t make wild assumptions and accuse each other of this and that. Everyone needs to be educated about it in a very simple way and then it needs to be a discussion. If you think about it, 10 years ago, Miami21 would not have been possible, and whenever you mentioned walking or transit to somebody in our region, they would all say, “Oh, you’re crazy.” But now everybody’s talking about it. People are bicycling, they want to live downtown. They’re happy to move out of the suburbs. So culture changes—you can change it. But there has to be a pretty steady discussion about it. It’s possible, because we’ve already done it. It was a big group of people that did it, and I would say it started in Miami Beach.