I am standing with Christine Binswanger, senior partner of Herzog & de Meuron, a few hours before the Perez Art Museum Miami opens it doors to the public for the first time. All around us, construction workers are making last minute adjustments, while troublesome clusters of VIPs take their first peak into the museum's airy, austere galleries. The excitement is palpable.
And yet I can't unpeel my eyes from the huge, hurricane-proof window before us. They offer enormous views of resplendent Biscayne Bay and the six-lane, 5.6km Macarthur Causeway that crosses it. Throbbing with traffic, the causeway is the kind of thing that, I imagine, people come to museums to forget. So I ask Binswanger, the museum's project architect, how her team approached this design problem.
"Problem? What problem?" says Binswanger. "That is what Miami is about. Anyway, I find it beautiful. Don't you?"
Suddenly I do. Or at least I find beautiful the building's wide-open embrace of Miami, causeways and all. And I suspect that this visual (and programmatic) permeability to the city's realities—natural and manmade—will define PAMM's institutional success.
Attracting museumgoers is no simple task in this semitropical city where, as museum director Thom Collins frankly admits, art must compete with sun, surf and sand. PAMM neutralizes this problem by opening itself up to these very elements. It invites passers-by up from a bayside promenade with steps as wide as the museum itself. Enormous overhangs provide un-ticketed visitors shelter, whether from sun or a sudden afternoon squall. Lush gardens and unbroken views of city and sea encourage them to linger. And for those who decide to move inside the museum itself, the connection with the city is never cut. Great expanses of glass, like the one Binswanger and I stand before, dissolve the traditional barriers between jewel-box museums and the world at large.
Remarkably, PAMM's views of the city do not intrude on one's experience of the art. A rigorous simplicity of shapes, colors and materials endow the galleries with a meditative quality. Except for the white of the gallery walls, virtually all the building materials are left to assume their natural shade. "Artists should bring the color," Jacques Herzog tells me during a pre-opening walkthrough.
And yet you never feel like you are trapped in a maze of white cubes. Sight lines orient you without defining your course. Airy galleries with large windows, white walls and polished cement floors alternate with more intimate spaces with narrow windows, wood floors and walls of pale gray.
In Miami, a city built on real estate speculation, architecture tends toward shiny, look-at-me forms. So when I first approached the PAMM, I found its overall design—simple Modernist planes and muted colors—underwhelming. But as I take leave of Christine Binswanger and head outside, I begin to understand. Just as the glass walls open the museum to the city, the unadorned planes provide a dispassionate platform of maximal flexibility.
And that is exactly what Miami requires. A multi-lingual, multicultural portal between North America, South America and the Caribbean, it is a hybrid city in a perpetual state of self-invention. In response, the museum competes as little as possible with future forms it may take. Rather, it serves as a kind a tabula rasa, or better yet a tabula aperta—a kind of open platform—on which Miami and its artists can imagine more beautiful futures.