MCAD: A visionary take on urban renewal – Knight Foundation

MCAD: A visionary take on urban renewal

The historic downtown building that houses MCAD, AIA Miami and the Downtown Miami Welcome Center.
Candleholder/vase made from found materials from Deon Rubi.
Green vase sculpture from Deon Rubi.
Entrance to MCAD.

The historic Downtown building that houses MCAD, AIA Miami and the Downtown Miami Welcome Center. Even before entering the Miami Center for Architecture & Design (MCAD) in Downtown, you know you are in for something special. The 1912 building sits in the heart of what remains of the historic center of Miami, still populated by buildings with deco facades, awe-inspiring lobbies and soaring ceilings. Climbing up the outdoor stairs, the original brass doors invite the visitor into a space that opens up with huge archways, a high ceiling with chic lighting, and a simply eye-catching contemporary steel staircase. This is MCAD, which houses the Miami chapter of AIA (American Institute of Architects), the Downtown Miami Welcome Center, a lecture area, and exhibition spaces that, as of May 14, include a quirky small art and design project room. Opened up officially in December 2013, last year MCAD won a Knight Arts Challenge grant with the aim to “bring together artists and architects for discussions around the trend of incorporating art into new buildings. …. Taking advantage of Miami’s arts scene and unique architecture, MCAD will bring together local and global architects and artists who have successfully collaborated on projects.” Candleholder/vase made from found materials from Deon Rubi. As part of this mission to integrate art, design and architecture, MCAD unveiled its first project gallery exhibit with “Love Always,” from local artist Deon Rubi. In the front of the center, Rubi’s delicate candleholders, mirrors and vases sit behind an enclosed glass casing in a narrow corridor, right in front of the main, broad space – an interesting placement and way to view this small exhibit. It’s meant to replicate window-shopping, where we can view beautiful objects from the street, removed from our touch, and unable to actually move around them. In Miami’s exploding luxury-centric development, the statement here can reflect as much about the high-end store products that the average person can only gaze at, as the high-rises that are only accessible and affordable to a very few. The pieces from Rubi at first look like they could be placed seamlessly into one of these stores or condos, crafted from blown glass with texturing that looks bejeweled. But they are made from found objects and materials – for which the artist goes dumpster diving – giving them a raw edge. The stems may be copper tubing, and the centerpiece on the wall has a large discarded mirror as its base. “They are delicate and rough,” says Rubi. “The materials really decided the piece.” Like urban renewal, the idea is to use and re-use what is already at hand to give objects and structures new life. These solo exhibits will last about two months, and are the initiative of the new programs and operations manager Ricardo Mor, who says they will be site-specific in their themes, focusing on how art, design and architecture can complement each other. Green vase sculpture from Deon Rubi. The inaugural “Love Always” is a lovely kick-off for this programming. More broadly, the young center’s mission is to promote innovations within built environments, to work within an urban architecture to build a future sustainable world – that’s also beautiful. The setting in this renovated historic building couldn’t be more perfect. It has gone through many identities, according to Mor, first as a post office, at some point as a Walgreens. Along the way, new occupants did their best to desecrate the space, covering the marble floors with vinyl and lowering the ceilings. MCAD has restored its grandeur. Currently in the main room is a text-based exhibit called “FitNation,” highlighting national projects that are enhancing and creating urban structures that are both functional and fitness-happy. For instance, a number of the renovations incorporate fresh food elements, some with locally produced food courts, one with an “edible wall” – where an exterior wall literally has been turned into a vertical garden. And many emphasize stairways. Open, convenient stairs are a healthier alternative to closed-up elevators, and they can be a setting for social interaction, a public space where art and music can be highlighted. That’s indeed why the MCAD space has such a distinctive, gorgeous staircase in its main gallery, says Executive Director Cheryl Jacobs. Designed by well-known local architect Allan Shulman, it was welded together on site and serves both as a stairway to the second floor and as a design element augmenting the entire space; it really is a sculpture. The stairs leading up to the building are also integral to the MCAD aesthetic, says Jacobs. They become the stage for a monthly live performance series called Lively Steps, with busker-style music and poetry readings (next one up: June 5, from 5-7 p.m.). This year, MCAD is again a KAC finalist, for “promoting the work of local designers, architects and artists through a shop that commissions and then sells limited editions of their work.” This shop should be open sometime in the fall, according to Jacobs. They will also be initiating a live-streaming program of the lectures and panels held at MCAD. Entrance to MCAD. But already in place are walking tours of Historic Downtown – every other Saturday of the month – and an intriguing art-related tour called SketchMIA. Led by two architects from University of Miami and Florida International University, the tours shed light on such architectural gems as the salmon-colored Church of Gesu (down the street from MCAD) by having participants learn how to sketch them. The two-hour walking course is held once a month (the next one is May 30). As Miami’s skyline changes by the day, this rebirth in a grand old building Downtown seems particularly important. Miami for the first time hosted the Pritztker Prize for Architecture, the most prestigious award in that field in the world, on May 15, and our city is filling up with contemporary structures made by starchitects, putting us firmly on the international architectural map. But much of this is for a 1 percent, not accessible, and questionably sustainable in terms of energy and congestion. MCAD’s aim to emphasize the past, present and future in our urban development, in an open and public manner, is more critical than ever. For information on all the programs and events, go to