The Mondrian

August 25, 2009

David Sokol packs his sunscreen and heads to Florida to visit the latest Marcel Wanders project, The Mondrian in South Beach Miami.

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The name of Morris Lapidus (1901 to 2001) is synonymous with Miami Beach. Yet when the architect started working there, his reputation was as ‘the hotel doctor’, says Randall Robinson, a locally-based author who helped coin the term ‘MiMo’ to brand Lapidus and Miami’’s uniquely exuberant version of modernist design. “He’d be brought in by hotel builders after they became disenchanted with the architect they originally hired,” Robinson says of Lapidus, who was already established as a retail designer at the time.

Last December Miami Beach commenced a new era of ‘medical attention’ with the launch of at least five adaptively reused and renovated hotels. And among the doctors involved in this wave of openings and re-openings, Dutch designer Marcel Wanders (who lent his ironic brand of provocation to the Mondrian) enjoys several close parallels with Lapidus.

International tourism relegated Miami Beach to third-class status in the 1960s, and the city became a place for Jewish retirees, Cuban exiles and urban neglect. But it has risen from the ashes again and again, predating December’’s revival by decades. Robinson cites 1976, for example, when Barbara Capitman founded the Miami Design Preservation League to save the art deco buildings of Ocean Drive, or 1995, when Ian Schrager renovated and reopened the Robert Swartburg-designed Delano Hotel with a sleek design by Frenchman Philippe Starck.

Prior to the Mondrian commission, Wanders had realised an extensive body of dry and historically referential product designs, but, evoking Lapidus’ retail oeuvre, only one hotel job: Lute Suites in Amsterdam, 18th century worker’s’ housing tastefully transformed into a small boutique hotel partly owned by Wanders. For the Mondrian, Wanders translated his signature aesthetic to the scale of architecture, painting the hotel in strokes both broad and fine, and with relative abandon. He has remade a 1960s condo designed by Lapidus imitator Melvin Grossman into a totally designed, real-world stage set that has been described as Sleeping Beauty’’s castle. It is lush with pattern and texture, foliage real and implied, and humour as well as romance. The design overwhelms the standoffish sex and glamour that so often defines Miami Beach culture, reducing it to mere counterpoint.

That exercise in diminishment begins even before arriving at the Mondrian’’s front door, where rows of Wonderland-scale golden bells with embedded chandeliers in the porte-cochere overshadow Hummers and saline implants. Brobdingnagian entry doors are practically infantilising, and an adjacent garden maze bookended by fanciful gates invites introspection rather than display.

Miami Beach is famous for the entries and lounge areas that multiply the city’’s public spaces. The Mondrian wraps its rear pool in a semicircle, and here Wanders makes explicit his desire to transport guests back to childhood. A tented adult-scale sandbox punctuates this backyard, as do private cabanas wrapped in ivy and sporting flat-screen TVs. In the lobby that funnels day-trippers from the porte-cochere to the pool, columns resembling giant lacquered lathe-turned table legs prop up the building and the golden bells reappear.

As if visitors needed any more reminding that the Mondrian is not the average see-and-be-seen Miami Beach venue, a spiral staircase featuring a dainty, water jet-cut banister, finished in matte black, negates the all-white palette of the Delano, which defined the look and feel of Miami Beach and of boutique hotels almost immediately on its 1995 opening. The coal-coloured staircase also serves as the centrepiece around which the lobby and pool are two in a quartet of cardinal points that also includes the similarly spirited Sunset Lounge and the latest satellite Asia de Cuba restaurant.

Indeed, for all of his attempts at youthfulness, Wanders has other ambitions in mind for the Mondrian. Among them, he nods to our very grown-up intellects. Visitors to the Agua men’’s lounge may mess around with an oversize football, to be sure, but the spa’’s manicure area can be accessed through a hidden door in the perforated, patterned wall, where thrones await guests. The lobby includes a 21st century automat that vends everything from a Paul Smith toothbrush to a Rolls Royce. Both offer consumerist escape and biting commentary on it, simultaneously. Moreover, any adult will appreciate Wanders’’ professional ambition, designing myriad one-offs and special versions of existing products like his Jester couch in order to complete the Sleeping Beauty experience.

Fittingly, today both the Delano and Mondrian belong to Morgans Hotel Group, which also owns a third property in Miami Beach. Unlike its predecessors, though, Mondrian’’s perch on the Intracoastal Waterway, well away from the commerce of Lincoln Road or the wall of hotels facing the Atlantic Ocean, is more destination than no-brainer. “You have to plug back into Miami Beach if you’’re here,” admits Scott Williams, chief marketing officer of Morgans Hotel Group. Yet Williams’’ colleague, Morgans Hotel Group CEO Fred Kleisner, says that Andrée Putman’’s 1984 design for Morgans New York, which wasn’’t renovated until 2008, set a longevity standard for all of the company’’s properties.

It is not yet certain whether Wanders’’ design for the Mondrian can both draw visitors away from prime Miami Beach while enduring for as many years as Putman’’s Morgans New York. Another legacy is more certain, however. Lapidus’’ stock began to rise in the early 1950s with the De Lido, a hotel commission he shared with Melvin Grossman, and then changed even more dramatically with the assignment to design the Fontainebleau –– Lapidus’’ first opportunity to create a Miami Beach hotel from scratch. The results of the Fontainebleau design were transformative, establishing the swooping, futuristic architectural vocabulary of MiMo that would be imitated by the likes of Grossman and Norman Giller, as well as solidifying Lapidus’ position as the leader of Miami Beach hotel design for the next two decades. With the Mondrian, Wanders has analogously defied the conventions of hotel design. And already his eponymous design studio is being offered other commissions in the field, such as the interior of the forthcoming Kameha Grand Bonn. Perhaps, in retrospect, one of these projects will prove to be Wanders’’ very own Fontainebleau.

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