In the opening sequence of The Birdcage (1996), starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, the camera zooms over the ocean and heads straight for the thumping nightlife scene of Miami's Ocean Drive, where the neon glow of the Art Deco District at the height of its 1990s renaissance takes centre stage. This edition of Cityscape will take an in-depth look at the neon-lit, Art Deco legacy of the Miami Beach Architectural District, registered since 1979 as a U.S. National Historic District. 

The neon glow of Ocean Drive at night, South Beach, image by Flickr user Craig ONeal via Creative Commons

Containing 960 historic structures, the Miami Beach Architectural District is located in the South Beach neighbourhood of Miami, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Alton Road to the west, the Collins Canal/Dade Boulevard to the north, and Sixth Street to the south. Featured in countless films and television series — older readers may recognize it from the 1980s classic TV detective drama Miami Vice — the historic Miami Art Deco District, as the area is more commonly known, has been capturing the imaginations of locals and tourists alike for the better part of the last century.

Land clearing to make way for Lincoln Road under direction from Carl G. Fisher, 1915, image via Miami Beach Archives

Once the site of a large coconut farm, what became South Beach did not begin in earnest until the early twentieth century, when the area's urban development began in earnest due to the speculation and vision of that era's enterprising spirit, along with the efforts of entrepreneurs and business men such as the Lummus Brothers and Carl G. Fisher, who worked tirelessly throughout the 1910s and 1920s to make South Beach a city unto itself, a destination for vacationers and wealthy Americans looking for a home away from home. By the 1920s, and even into the Depression-wrought 1930s, a massive building boom in South Beach led to the construction of countless new hotels, apartments, nightclubs, and mansions, all catering to the luxurious lifestyle that has today become synonymous with the area.

The Carlyle, 1939, by Kiehnel and Elliot, image by Flickr user advencap via Creative Commons

Coinciding with the worldwide explosion of Art Deco, which had been formally introduced on the world stage at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, the development of South Beach during this time benefitted immensely from the creative, modernist influences of Art Deco's signature, sleek style and distinctive look. Coming out of the early twentieth century's collective enthusiasm for Cubism, Constructivism, Functionalism, Modernism, and Futurism, Art Deco bridged the gap between the more fanciful Art Nouveau style of the turn of the century, and the later Bauhaus, Industrial Modern, and Mid-Century Modern styles which came about during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Art Deco is defined in the loosest of terms as a style made distinct via its reliance of clean, angular lines, often featuring smooth, finished stone, cement, or stucco surfaces, paired most often with limited or muted colour palettes, and a restrained, yet simultaneously well-appointed sense of decoration and penchant for architectural drama and flair. 

Leslie Hotel, 1937, by Albert Anis, image by Flickr user Henry Hemming via Creative Commons

In South Beach, the arrival of Art Deco influenced many of the buildings which today give the neighbourhood its distinct sense of urban style and character. Several of the historic district's best examples exhibit a particular off-shoot of Art Deco known as Streamline Moderne. Labelled as such for its smooth, curvilinear sculpting, the style features rounded corners and edges, fins, and an overall, futuristic, nearly Space Age look. Mirrored by the era's affinity for similarly designed automobiles, the adoption of Streamline Moderne into the Art Deco fabric of Miami's South Beach neighbourhood works well to set the city and historic district apart, unique from any other collection of Art Deco structures in the world. 

Jerry's Deli, 1940, example of Streamline Moderne by Henry Hohauser, image by Flickr user Wally Goetz via Creative Commons

The style was defined by Miami-based Art Deco specialist, Albert Anis (1889-1964), who designed several hotels along Ocean Drive, along with several others structures in South Beach, including The Whitelaw Hotel (1936), The Leslie Hotel (1937), and the Colonnade Apartments (1946), along with fellow Miami architect Lawrence Murray Dixon (1901-1949), who designed The Temple House (1933), The Tides Hotel (1936), and Hotel Victor (1939), and architect Henry Hohauser (1895-1963), who designed several hotels along Ocean Drive, including The Colony Hotel (1935), The Park Central Hotel (1937), The Century Hotel (1939), and The Crescent (1941). Though each possessed his own style and take on the themes common to Art Deco, the work of these and other contemporary local architects collectively gives South Beach its cohesive sense of style. 

Hotel Victor, 1939, by Lawrence Murray Dixon, image by Flickr user joediev via Creative Commons

Falling into an era of sustained economic decline throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, many of the historic structures in South Beach suffered similar fates to the historic architecture found in many North American cities at the same time: facing the wrecking ball or demolition due to neglect, with little to no cohesive plans for the neighbourhood's past, present, or future. By the 1980s, however, South Beach had become a hotbed of redevelopment thanks to the area's burgeoning LGBTQ community, many members of which began to buy up and restore much of the neighbourhood's historic, Art Deco hotels and nightclubs, bringing about a second life and urban renaissance (captured in the aforementioned Birdcage) to South Beach that has continued to this day.

Park Central Hotel, 1937, by Henry Hohauser, image by Flickr user Wally Gobetz via Creative Commons

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the architectural character of the Miami Beach Architectural District has been largely preserved, an effort which has been bolstered by the renaissance and restoration boom of the 1980s and 90s. Today, South Beach continues to evolve, its beaches and main streets, paired with its legendary nightlife, restaurant, and bar scene, as well as its more recent identity as a staple of the American LGBTQ community, having more than sustained the area as a favourite vacation destination for travellers and urban explorers of all kinds. Beyond its natural beauty and warm climate, the Art Deco legacy inherent to Miami's South Beach has also made the area a prime destination for architecture enthusiasts, urban historians, and photographers, with the iconic neon lights of the Ocean Drive strip a perennial favourite for snapping photos, people watching, and taking in the nightlife and energy for which South Beach has become famous.

Ocean Drive by night featuring the Colony Hotel, 1935, by Henry Hohauser, image by Jimmy Baikovicius via Creative Commons

For further discussion on topics relating to Miami check out the local Forum, and as always, feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below. Cityscape will return soon with a new instalment, and in the meantime, SkyriseCities welcomes new suggestions for additional cities and styles to cover in the weeks to come.