Robert Stern Partner On Designing a ‘Sexy Building’ for Miami

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The architect Robert A.M. Stern is known for his classic designs, as is his eponymous firm, Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA). 

The New York-based architectural firm’s designs, often decked in limestone-like masonry, harken back to Art Deco styles of the 1920s. It’s the firm that developers seek out when they want a stately building. Just look at the famed 15 Central Park West, one of New York’s best-selling condo buildings sometimes referred to as “Limestone Jesus;” or 220 Central Park South, the record-setting tower whose penthouse sold for $190 million earlier this year. 

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But when RAMSA began planning a counterpart in Miami, it chose to eschew tradition and adapt to the city’s more carefree environment. RAMSA is designing the uber-luxury St. Regis condo in Brickell, and in a first for the firm, the building will be primarily made of glass. 

RAMSA was brought onto the project by Related Group, Miami’s largest condo developer led by Jorge Pérez and his sons. Related sees the project as its own 220 Central Park South, with a sellout pegged at $2 billion. The development, originally a two-tower complex, is set to become more exclusive as Related dropped plans for a second skyscraper to build fewer, but larger, units. 

RAMSA partner Paul Whalen sat down with Commercial Observer to discuss the firm’s entrance in Miami and the St. Regis development. (The interview took place before the two-tower plan was changed.)

Commercial Observer: How did you first meet the Pérezes? 

Paul Whalen: I’ve known Jorge Pérez for a long time, not closely, but enough to say hello and chat. Over the years, I’ve gone to Miami for Art Basel and for other purposes. I’d stop into Jorge’s office and ask, “How are you doing? And we just want to remind you that we’re here. We’re very interested in doing some work in Miami.” Nothing ever came of it. 

And then COVID came along. Of course, for most of us, it was terrible. But there were also some opportunities that came up because of COVID. And one of the major ones is that a lot of New Yorkers and Northerners in the U.S. became very interested in Florida and in Miami. So suddenly, developers realized that there were sophisticated New Yorkers coming down to Miami, who were used to a particular kind of quality for residences.

How exactly did the St. Regis project come about?

We were thrilled when we got a call from Related, Jorge and his sons. They had this great site on Brickell. I went down to Florida with our team and met with Nick and John Paul. We started to talk and I explained how our work is very contextual. Jon Paul said, “That’s all great, but you got to remember one thing — Miami is a sexy city. While we love all your buildings, none of them are sexy.” 

I said, ‘“OK. Maybe that’s true.  … There are lots of other great things about them. But we’ll be back in a few weeks — and we will give you a sexy building.”

This is a great opportunity for us to go to Miami and to be hired because of our New York cred. But also to show everybody in Miami and everybody all over the world that we can put on our Miami outfit, and that’s different from our New York outfits and our L.A. outfit.

RAMSA is known for using mansory, but the St. Regis project is primarily a glass tower. Why did you make that design choice? 

We had always said no to glassy buildings. Even in New York, we turned down residential projects made out of glass. That’s not our thing. 

But in this particular case, we thought that Miami is really different in the sense that high-rise glass is such an important part of the city and there’s only a very minor tradition in Miami of high-rise masonry. 

And so that, along with the request to be sexy, made us think of lines that curved, and that brought a kind of sinuousness. 

The building also looks like a ship. 

We also were inspired by the fact that Miami is a resort city, but it also is a great world port. And the drama and the excitement of ocean liners was exciting to us. 

It was very important to us that somebody get the sense of an immediate connection with water and nautical feeling in the buildings. And then from the back, the buildings are actually simpler. The most iconic parts of the buildings are really phased out towards the water, towards the harbor. 

I’m curious to know your response to critics who say RAMSA is not a good fit for Miami’s modern aesthetics and too traditional for the city?

Well, I would show them this building. This building is very much about Miami. It has an iconic top that you can see from a distance. It’s all done in a Modernist vocabulary. This building wouldn’t fit in New York. So for us, it’s less about whether it’s traditional or modern. It’s about how much we’re fitting in to the character of a city.

What’s your opinion of Arquitectonica, the most prominent architectural firm in Miami, which is best known for its modern flares?

They brought fun back to Miami in a way that, I think, nobody had seen in a little while. A lot of the glass buildings were very corporate. They reminded everybody that buildings can be fun; they can be graphic; and at the same time, they make sense architecturally. I respect them a lot. 

Now, you can respect another musician; you don’t have to be like them. We do something else. I don’t love everything they’ve ever done. But I certainly admire them as architects and I think they’ve done some wonderful work.