A Short History of Miami Modern Architecture

A proud veteran flexes his muscles outside his North Miami home in 1957

Architects' Vision

The word MiMo is a relatively new term used to describe the post-war architectural style in South Florida that rose out of the International Style, a popular school of Modernism at the time.

A confluence of factors shaped Miami Beach's landscape after World War II: an overwhelming national optimism, Hollywood's renewed prominence, space exploration and technological progress, and the building boom in Miami.

Today, several architects including Morris Lapidus, Norman Giller, Igor Polevitsky and Melvin Grossman are credited with establishing MiMo as a distinct offshoot from Miles van der Hoes' International Style. At the time, however, they considered their designs Modernist and did not consciously set out to establish a new brand of architecture.

Norman Giller, in his autobiography Designing the Good Life, says architects merely took cues from their environment: "I have always believed that architecture does not develop in a vacuum," he writes. "Rather, it mirrors the people of its time." (3) Architect Morris Lapidus wrote in his autobiography Too Much is Never Enough, "My work never tried to follow the changing trends; it was always a sort of plastic form that was molded by the most important feature of my buildings, the interiors, for which all buildings are designed" (294).

Postwar Optimism

The years from 1945 to 1960 were marked by a post-war optimism and affluence that resonated in design. Miami experienced a building boom as soldiers settled down in the area and raised families, according to Eric Nash's preface in Designing the Good Life. Architects adapted the straight lines and austerity of Miles van der Hoes' International Style for a tropical environment. Brightly-colored facades, covered canopies, circular ornamental windows and cheesehole cutouts that evoked a nautical theme captured the sultry feel of Miami Beach.

Cinematic Influence

At the same time that Miami experienced a building boom, the city was establishing itself as a glamorous playground for some of Hollywood's biggest stars. The Resort MiMo hotels on Collins Avenue were particularly popular with Frank Sinatra, Joan Crawford, Lena Horne, Jackie Gleason and the rest of the Rat Pack crew (Boston Globe, Feb. 15, 2006). Buildings, such as Lapidus' Eden Roc and Fontainebleau hotels, reproduced Hollywood's glitz in their grand entryways and lobbies designed to make visitors feel as if they had walked onto their own movie sets.

Technological Progress

After the war, technology and transportation fascinated Americans. Domestic consumer appliances and televisions became staples of the middle class families who could now afford them. Jetliners were finally feasible and successful. The Russians launched Sputnik on October, 4, 1957, which galvanized the famous Space Race between two opposing world powers. In the fifties, if science worked to make the consumer more comfortable, then architecture used that science to its advantage. MiMo architecture made consumers' fantasy real.

The streamlined chrome design of automobiles and jets made its way into architecture. Bean poles, woggles, metal balconies and asymmetrical cantilevers all evoke this futuristic obsession. Eric Nash calls MiMo "a confluence of trends in transportation, lifestyle, even the bright and plentiful packaging" (Designing the Good Life, 3).

Family members pose outside their South Florida home

Climate Control

The invention of air-conditioning helped Miami Beach's tourism economy. By 1955, almost every major hotel had installed air-conditioning, which made hot South Florida more attractive to potential tourists (Robinson and Nash, 14). Year-round tourism was viable but tropical casual lifestyle persisted. Vacationers still flocked to Miami for hammocks and sun. It was the perfect atmosphere for a thriving resort culture, and MiMo architecture comprised its skeleton.