Seven years ago, soon after he acquired the development site for a Fort Lauderdale riverfront residential development called Marina Lofts, developer Asi Cymbal recruited a then-little known Danish architect to the project.
“We introduced him to South Florida, which was exciting,” Cymbal says of Bjarke Ingels. “Today, of course, he’s the hottest architect in the world. But back then, he was starting out.”
Anthony Abbate, director of the school of architecture at Florida Atlantic University, notes that internationally acclaimed stars in architecture, or “starchitects,” have designed multiple downtown-area buildings in Miami so far this century. But Ingels’ unbuilt Marina Lofts, a dramatic design which would resemble one building ripped in two, is Fort Lauderdale’s only one. If Cymbal can get the Ingels design built, Abbate says, “then you’re on the international map, and other star firms start to pay attention and look at Fort Lauderdale, and that encourages other developers to compete and raise the bar.”
Not everybody is as excited about starchitects. Miami developers who have hired them “are going to live to regret it … I think the developers in Lauderdale are a lot smarter,” says Robert Swedroe, whose Miami-based firm, Robert Swedroe Architects, designed Las Olas Grand, a curvilinear 39-story condo at 411 N New River Dr. West that opened in 2005.
“We design from the inside out. The exterior is really a byproduct of the interior,” Swedroe says. “The starchitect is looking to improve his reputation, so he designs from the outside in. The emphasis is on what the building’s going to look like, and how different he can make it … We design every residential unit as if we’re going to live in it.”
Right now it’s unclear whether Ingels’ design will ever appear in any form beyond sketches and renderings. Cymbal says he will intensify his efforts to get Marina Lofts built after he launches construction of a canal-front apartment development in Dania Beach this summer. For the record, however, the Miami-based developer declined to say whether he would retain the Ingels design for Marina Lofts.
Even without Marina Lofts, a modern generation of high-rise buildings has popped up in and around downtown Fort Lauderdale since the turn of the century, adding visual variety to the city’s growing skyline. For example, one of the city’s tallest buildings, the 3-year-old Icon Las Olas residential tower at 500 East Las Olas Blvd., has a glassy, curvy style comparable to the designs of other 21st century buildings downtown, defying the traditional box-shaped look.
As the city government has planned, building heights taper lower as building sites extend from the center of downtown Fort Lauderdale to the periphery. “Like almost building a mountain, which is actually very nice,” Abbate says. But he says downtown Fort Lauderdale still has room for architectural improvement.
Building design is a complex product of not just architectural imagination and developers’ needs but also government policies and political preferences. Case in point: Mayor Dean Trantalis thinks downtown area architecture is too boxy, and his desire for better design may alter high-rise style in the downtown area. The mayor has told city staff that the downtown area needs “more interesting design, not boxy-looking buildings,” Jim Hetzel, a principal city planner and a member of the city’s Development Review Committee (DRC), said during a DRC meeting last year. In response to the mayor’s guidance, the DRC encouraged a redesign of Flagler Creative, a 30-story rental apartment development in the Flagler Village area just north of downtown. Elements of the recommended redesign include a tighter integration of the building’s tower, podium and parking garage to create more public gathering space.
City officials who review building designs “don’t ask for a specific look” but routinely ask developers to hide parking garages from public view, says Larry Freedman of Cohen Freedman Escinosa & Associates, a Miami Lakes-based firm also known as CFE Architects. “Part of the design guidelines is to mask the parking as much as you can … We’d love to not have parking, but we’re not there yet.”
Fish, Waves & Fifth Façades
Some of the upcoming architectural styles downtown pay homage to Fort Lauderdale’s self-proclaimed status as the “Venice of America” with contemporary design details inspired by waves, boats and fish. The size and shape of the development site also plays a role, as it did in the design of Next Las Olas, a 374-unit apartment building planned at 419 SE Second Street. “It’s a narrow rectangular site,” says Beatrice “Bizi” Hernandez, partner and director of design of MSA Architects, which created the building’s design. But instead of designing a rectangular building, “we elongated it with a soft curvilinear shape” and crowned the roof with shade structure in the shape of a fish fin.
The shape of the development site also affected the design of Alluvion Las Olas, a 43-story residential building under construction at 215 N River Dr. “The site wasn’t a rectangular shape,” says Freedman, whose CFE Architects designed Alluvion. “It had a nice curve as it followed the river, and we gave the building a bit of a nautical theme,” including an eight-story parking podium in the shape of a ship’s hull, a residential tower resembling a mast, and a sail-shaped shade structure on the building’s rooftop.
“A lot of it is ornamental, but that’s what we do. We create buildings that don’t have flat roofs, that have an iconic look,” he says. “I think the city would like to see iconic buildings that stand out. They don’t want cookie-cutter buildings. They’re really looking for that ‘fifth façade’ – something really special on the roof, which can give a building personality.”
Many of Fort Lauderdale’s best-known downtown landmarks with award-winning architecture opened from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, including the Broward County Main Library at 100 S Andrews Ave. (1984), the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art at 1 E Las Olas Blvd. (1986), the Broward Center for the Performing Arts at 201 SW Fifth Ave. (1991) and the Museum of Discovery and Science at 401 SW Second St. (1992).
Changes in technology and taste since that era have contributed to the contemporary look of newer downtown high-rises. Consider the recent history of architecture firm Cooper Carry. The firm has designed five high-rise developments downtown in a series of styles, starting with New River Center, previously known as the Sun-Sentinel Building, at 200 E Las Olas Blvd., a Mediterranean-style office building constructed in 1988.
In the late 1980s, many architects embraced a style called post-modernism, which featured such structural flourishes as decorative rooftops, and the barrel-tiled Mediterranean style was a good local fit with post-modernism, says Mike Service, an Atlanta-based associate principal of Cooper Carry. “It was kind of a rebellion against the stark modernism of the ’60s and ’70s,” he says. Cooper Carry also designed its second downtown building, 450 Las Olas, in a Mediterranean style. But the firm tried something different when it designed the nearby 350 Las Olas office building for the Fort Lauderdale-based Stiles real estate firm. “We tried a foray into more contemporary architecture. We were actually quite pleased with the result of the building,” Service says. But “we got some mixed results on that from a client-perception standpoint.”
So when Cooper Carry began designing the award-winning Bank of America Plaza for Stiles, “they wanted us to go back to something that was a little more traditional in appearance but also forward-looking,” Service says. Cooper Carry again avoided the Mediterranean style and opted instead for a post-modernism style with art deco details, including a shaded, raised portico at ground level and a deco-inspired, pyramid-shaped rooftop crown that illuminates. When the 23-story office building at 401 E Las Olas Blvd. opened in 2002, it was one of the tallest buildings in the city. Its lighted rooftop punctuated the local skyline and served as a guide to the heart of the central business district. But since the Bank of America Plaza opened, taller towers have opened around it, blocking faraway views of its “pyramidal hat … If anything, it’s actually a nice feature to look down on from these taller buildings, because it creates a ‘fifth façade,” Service says.
Building the Modern City
Cooper Carry’s fifth downtown project since the late 1980s, The Main Las Olas, will bear little resemblance to its four predecessors in style or scope. Now under construction, The Main Las Olas will be a 1.4 million-square-foot, mixed-use development with an office building and a residential building, each with its own amenity deck. Renderings of The Main Las Olas show a sleek, glass-encased office building with an angled roof line and a contemporary concrete-and-glass residential building with a grid-style exterior design. The Stiles development also will feature a ground-floor Greenwise grocery store, part of the Publix family of supermarkets.
Publix, which has a supermarket along Andrews Avenue just south of the
downtown area and the Tarpon River, had been seeking a downtown store location for about a decade while studying the shopping habits of downtown residents. “They are very sophisticated in their analysis, and they have determined that people here don’t like to go south of the river,” says David Seigel, president of Stiles Commercial Group.
Stiles will offer office space featuring 10-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows with high-tech, non-reflective glass. The office building at The Main Las Olas will incorporate a branded type of clear glass called Vision Glass that blocks sunlight without reflecting it. So, at The Main Las Olas, “you’ll be able to see from the outside in, unlike most of the others that are reflective,” Seigel says. “It’s going to provide a much more activated image from the outside.”
Several other large-scale, mixed-use developments in downtown Fort Lauderdale have tested the ability of architects to deliver dynamic designs and avoid monolithic ones. For example, 100 Las Olas, a curvy tower combining a Hyatt Centric Hotel and a residential condominium, is expected to open this summer with locally inspired architectural touches.
“We wanted to keep with the theme of Las Olas, which means ‘the waves,’ so the [condo] balconies are shaped as waves,” says Pinar Harris, vice president and associate principal of SB Architects, which designed 100 Las Olas for developer Kolter Urban. The 46-story tower with 113 condos on top of 238 hotel guest rooms is expected to be the city’s tallest building when it opens. Among other design priorities, “the façade of the garage was a very critical element of our design,” Harris says. “So, we created this metal paneling system that lights up at night. It’s perforated. It’s broken up with vertical ‘fins.’ It’s a combination of different design elements.”
SB Architects also has designed a large mixed-use development called FATVillage, which takes its name from nearby FAT Village, the artsy low-rise collection of galleries, studios and food-and-drink spots in the Flagler Village area just north of downtown. FATVillage will combine market-rate apartments, workforce housing, a hotel, office space and restaurant space, plus a so-called “kitchen incubator” for local chefs to prepare and share food. The exterior design will reserve wall space for a series of mural exhibits, comparable to those in Miami’s colorful Wynwood district. “We tried to create ‘canvases,’ if you will, in some of our building facades for artists to come and display three-, four-, five-story murals,” Harris says.
Another mixed-use development in the same area with a similar name, FAT City, would be a vertical small town, a 1.35 million-square-foot combination of offices, apartments and stores at 300 N Andrews Ave., two blocks north of City Hall. Fort Lauderdale-based Adache Group Architects have designed FAT City, which the city approved in 2017, but the developers haven’t built it yet.
“They wanted something sexy. So, we gave them something sexy, or at least we thought it was. It had an interesting architectural façade and an interior courtyard,” says Dan Adache, the owner of Adache Group Architects. “It’s a very aggressive project for that neighborhood, and they [the developers] couldn’t get funding for it … I don’t know where it’s going from here.”
More broadly, architecture that is bolder and more interesting is something that some experts believe Fort Lauderdale would benefit from.
“Not that our designs [in downtown Fort Lauderdale] are bad,” Florida Atlantic University’s Abbate says. “But they’re not exceptional. They’re middlebrow … An interesting skyline has a good number of ‘object’ buildings – sculptural buildings that are making a statement and somehow pushing the limits of structure and form.”