Miami architects resist “starchitect” label — but buyers bite

Bjarke Ingels, Chad Oppenheim highlight TRD roundtable

Nov.November 08, 2013 02:00 PM

An architect who earns the dubious designation of “starchitect” will stand out from his or her peers, but the label can also place a heavy burden on the designer.

As auteurism is to the film industry, starchitecture is to building design: a mark of distinction bestowed upon the most individual and renowned designers, including the likes of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. Describing it as a “term coined by the media,” award-winning Danish architect Bjarke Ingels said anyone given the label must avoid the potential stigma that comes with it.

“The pitfalls of having a signature style are that you could fall into the trap of always doing a signature style,” Ingels said. “Architecture is a form of portraiture, where you try to capture some of the core qualities of a place.”

Ingels was part of The Real Deal roundtable discussion about starchitecture and other industry trends held at the Coconut Grove location of Terra Group’s luxury Grove at Grand Bay condominium development, the first American project designed by Ingels’ firm, Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG. Several hundred guests attended the event at the 2675 South Bayshore Drive site.

The panel was moderated by Peter Zalewski, founder of Condo Vultures, and also included Miami architect Chad Oppenheim, Terra’s David Martin and residential power brokers Esther Percal of Esslinger Wooten Maxwell and Mayi de la Vega of One Sotheby’s International Realty.

Oppenheim noted the industry is rife with the “homogenization of design,” so architects must be more sensitive to the community around a high-rise project.

“The idea of a trend is something to be wary of,” he said. “We try to create something timeless. Context is important.”

Ingels and Oppenheim would not disclose the elevated fees their celebrity status allows them to charge when prodded by Zalewski. But the panel did opine on the potential financial benefits a starchitect can bring to a development.

Martin said the “name recognition” of Ingels generated interest from multiple lenders in Grove at Grand Bay. The stature of a project designer does not necessarily guarantee a financial windfall, however.

“The fundamentals need to work” for a high-rise development to produce profits in such a competitive condo market, Martin said.

Executives at Terra, a fixture in the South Florida development business since 2001, were “electrified” by Ingels during initial meetings with the architect, Martin said. After the 2008 housing collapse, developers in South Florida have become much more discerning about who they hire to design new projects.

“The question you have to ask,” Martin said, “is do you get a Pritzker Prize winner or the next Pritzker Prize winner?”

Oppenheim noted most of the burden falls on the developer to “see through your vision.”

The panelists also addressed the increased level of buyer sophistication in the current development cycle. About 175 condo towers are currently proposed in the region. Many are being funded through substantial buyer deposits, as construction lending remains scarce.

That financial structure, with buyers putting down as much as 50 percent up front, is eliminating speculators from the market.

“We’re in a good place with the deposit structure,” de la Vega said.

Today’s buyers are heavily scrutinizing all aspects of a development, paying extra attention to the quality of exterior and interior design, Percal said. That puts pressure on developers to hire the best architects and contractors they can find.

“You have to deliver good product,” Percal said. “Buyers want something beautiful and are willing to pay for it.”

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