It seems like there should be a bouncer and a line of women wobbling in stilettos beneath the red neon "1111" sign, like at any other South Beach hotspot.
This is no club, though. It's a radical, open-air parking garage that has become a modern gateway to the see-and-be-seen cafe scene of Miami Beach's Lincoln Road.
Its audacity is matched at the other end of the historic shopping strip by an innovative concert hall that Frank Gehry designed for a childhood friend. Both buildings have reclaimed once-blighted corners of the trendy pedestrian mall as public spaces and infused a new architectural whimsy into the traditional Art Deco and Miami Modern cityscape.
Even for South Beach, it sounds ridiculous that a parking garage could become something of a vertical park. But that's how 1111 Lincoln Road has evolved since it opened a year ago.
Runners charge up and down the ramps in the early mornings. Photographers stage shoots and tourists gawk at the views. A glass-walled high-end fashion boutique seems to float at the edge of the fifth level. The cars cleared out for Art Basel Miami Beach parties in December. There's even been a wedding. At the top is the developer's penthouse apartment, and green trees and vines seem to cascade down from its gardens.
There are drivers here, too, and they're not just parking. When they get out of their vehicles, many head first to the edges to take in the view before turning to the elevators or stairs in the center.
"People like this building not because there's some cool store here, but because there's something to look at," the developer, Robert Wennett says.
Wennett says he didn't intend to make a showpiece when he bought the land and its adjacent 1960s-era bank building. Local zoning laws pretty much required a parking garage for the site, but Wennett wanted something that could function as public space and recreate the original entrance to Lincoln Road.
Designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, who also designed the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, the gray concrete structure looks unfinished compared to other boxy parking garages. It has no exterior walls, and its seven parking levels feel more like terraces with panoramic views of the little pastel buildings most visitors associate with Miami Beach.
A grand central staircase grows from a site-specific sculpture of steel rebar. At the ground level, shop windows and the "1111" neon sign line up with the stores farther east along Lincoln Road. Everything opens to a black-and-white tiled plaza with shaded pools and a bubble-like sculpture named for the architect who designed Lincoln Road in the 1960s, Morris Lapidus.
The sculpture is open-ended, too, and always seems to have someone inside, face pressed against the glass, trying to make sense of the wavering forms outside.
'You can get away with it'
The whole project embodies the "you can get away with it" vibe of Miami Beach, says Arthur Marcus, an architect who is on the board of the Miami Design Preservation League, which offers architecture tours around South Beach.
"I always thought 'whimsy' was the word that embodied Miami Beach. Always fantasy," Marcus says.
The parking garage and Gehry's building managing to do that while making use of the same architectural elements found throughout the city: concrete, shade, wide openings to the outside, and a relatively short stature.
Gehry created a new home for the New World Symphony at the request of its founder and artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas. The architect used to baby-sit the former musical prodigy when they were growing up in Los Angeles.
The white shoe box-shaped building spills open at one end through a glass wall that reveals a lobby lounge, a spiral staircase and administrative offices disguised as a tumbling pile of boxes. Rehearsal rooms are encased in glass, making some visible from the lobby and others from the street.
The design harkens back to the days when the Miami City Ballet also had rehearsal space on Lincoln Road a few blocks from the symphony's former home. Passers-by could stop and watch ballerinas twirl through storefront windows that are now home to a Gap.
If the New World Center lacks the external swoops of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or his Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park, that's because it's not primarily a public building, Gehry said at the opening last month.
The New World Symphony is an orchestral academy founded in 1987. Since 1989, students had performed, studied and rehearsed in a converted 1930s movie house on Lincoln Road.
Gehry saved much of his whimsy for the new building's interior, such as a blue metal wave above the lobby's bar.
"It was more appropriate to work on this one from the inside because it's a teaching facility, something to be used by students," Gehry said. "It's kind of semiprivate, though there's invitation in the architecture to come in."
Gehry also included fresh canvases for video installations: on sails that seem to billow above the stage in the intimate concert hall and on a blank exterior wall where live performances can be "wallcast" to an audience in an adjacent 2.5-acre park (also new, but not designed by Gehry).
Thomas says he wanted a building that would break down barriers between musicians, an audience and people intimidated by classical music. The lobby lounge, the exterior wall and spaces for soloists hidden throughout the seats in the concert hall are designed for new performance formats.
"Having the opportunity to bring concerts onto the surface of the building, to share parts of our program with people who aren't part of it, is a very major thing," he said.