Norten adds his high energy

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Feb.February 08, 2008 07:54 PM

Enrique Norten can’t slow down. With offices in New York City and Mexico City, a chaired professorship at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, a family and children in Pennsylvania, and multiple projects for everything from private homes and museums to libraries and skyscrapers in cities throughout the world, the award-winning Mexican-born architect has neither the time nor the volition to stand still these days.

It’s fitting, then, that his designs for several prominent but as yet-to- be built projects in Miami and Miami Beach seem to embrace the concept of motion.

There’s the so-called Flatiron Building, a towering swath of white sail set against the blue sky, slated for development in Brickell Village. And the Lincoln East “cantilevered” building, a block-long mixed-use project featuring a large rectangle floating delicately on a small one, slated for development on Miami Beach. Then there’s the Midtown Lofts, another delicate balance of residences set over retail, slated for the Wynwood neighborhood.

Norten, founder and principal of the firm TEN Arquitectos, has a number of projects already underway in Miami, including a private residence for Lionstone Group CEO Alfredo Lowenstein and his wife, art gallery owner Diana. He also is doing three projects in the Caribbean with Alfredo Lowenstein.

Market realities have had an impact on the mixed-use developments in Miami and Miami Beach; they are on hold or being retooled. But that doesn’t stop the developers who hired him in the first place from singing his praises. They cannot wait to work with him again. From Norten’s perspective, the adoration is mutual.

“The culture in Miami is so close to my upbringing that it has been natural to find a resonance in our thoughts and aesthetics. I find it to be a fresh, modern American city, open to change and not afraid of it,” Norten said. “Miami is fearless. It has a climate and culture that appreciates more contemporary and modern proposals.”

Norten, 52, was born and raised in Mexico City. He earned an undergraduate degree from Universidad Iberoamericana in his hometown and a master’s in architecture from Cornell. He founded TEN Arquitectos in 1986 in Mexico City, but decided to expand to New York in 2001 so he could design for a more international audience and compete in the global market. TEN Arquitectos now has more than 70 architects and design team members in both countries.

Norten is a visiting professor at such prestigious schools as the Parsons School of Design and the Yale School of Architecture, and a visiting design critic at Harvard University. He also holds the Miller Chair at PennDesign, the design school of the University of Pennsylvania.

His work on the international stage, including winning the design competition for the Guggenheim Museum in Guadalajara, along with his work in New York and academia have combined to bring him great attention from Miami developers.

Florida International University can consider Norten as the one who got away–Norten was being considered for the deanship of FIU’s School of Architecture, but decided the time wasn’t right for him to move into full-time academia. But the interview process introduced him to Paul Cejas, chairman and CEO of PLC Investments, a real estate, health-care and venture capital investment firm, who was on the university’s board of regents at the time.

“We walked South Beach, and he saw what was happening and wanted to be part of it in a significant way,” said Cejas, who served as U.S. ambassador to Belgium under President Bill Clinton and made his fortune when the company he founded, CareFlorida Health Systems, merged with Foundation Health of California in 1994 for an estimated $90 million in stock.

“I had no plans to develop anything, but I remember the impact Enrique made on me,” Cejas said. “I wished I had a project to do with the guy.”

A few years later, Cejas purchased the 420 Lincoln Road office building in Miami Beach, and subsequently acquired the rest of the block, which borders Lincoln Road, 16th Street, Drexel Avenue and Washington Avenue. With Norten’s initial design, the nine-story building will have 169 condos, 550 parking spaces and 15,000 square feet of retail. The fifth floor of the building will feature a rooftop pool and other amenities. With a Frank Gehry-designed Performance Hall nearby, Cejas hopes Lincoln Road will become a cultural center for Miami Beach.

“I bought the property on the beach, and it matured to be able to develop it for the highest and best use,” Cejas said. “When it came time to do the project, I remembered Enrique and said, ‘This is my guy.'”

Cejas expects that his company will break ground within 18 months. “Obviously his design is fresh, new, visionary and the future, but at the same time it connects to what exists in the surroundings, which is a talent Enrique has,” Cejas said. “We want to do tomorrow, not yesterday, but it has to meet somewhere, and that’s what he’s done. The city got excited about it and in terms of design, it was fantastic.

“His personality is that he’s someone who is strong in his belief, but gentle in his behavior and in conveying his ideas,” Cejas added. “Not only does he have solutions, but they are incredibly creative and artistic solutions. Where you thought you had a problem, you have a great design. He has all the qualities you want.”

Asi Cymbal, cofounder and president of Miami-based Paradise International Development and former vice president and general counsel of Lev Leviev Boymelgreen, the $6 billion real estate development firm, said he kept hearing Norten’s name while conducting an extensive search for an architect for the Brickell project, a 75-story skyscraper that has been described by critics as one of the truly unique buildings in modern architecture.

After meeting Norten, “I saw instantly he was someone I wanted to work with,” Cymbal said. “He really has no pretension about him. I’ve worked with many internationally renowned architects, and the most important thing, other than being the highest level in terms of talent, is that the person is someone you can work and communicate with,” Cymbal said. “His works are cuttingedge. They stand out in their simplicity and their ability to get constructed.”

Cymbal noted that while many projects in Miami are currently on hold– including the Norten-designed Midtown Lofts for Paradise – “the better projects will be built.” He said Paradise hopes to break ground on the Brickell building within 24 months and is seeking a joint venture agreement on the project.

Norten is eager to do even more. “I would love to do more projects in Miami. I’ve found it very amicable and welcoming, and I would hope it happens,” he said.

Terence Riley, the former chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York who became the director of the Miami Museum of Art in 2006, said unlike most Latin American architects, Norten isn’t defined by his country of origin.

“I think the appeal of Enrique is that he’s very much immersed in Latin culture, but he’s never turned it into a style or scene. He is one of the most international of the Latin American architects,” Riley said. “Part of the reason for his success is that he is Latin, but in a very cosmopolitan way. Miami has always responded to that.”

Even as the local culture embraces his designs, so too are the developers. As Riley, who also was chief architecture curator at MoMA before coming to Miami, noted, it’s a very tricky thing to be an architect for a developer.

“If you have an architect who doesn’t understand the pragmatic aspects of doing a building, you don’t need that person. But if they’re only a pragmatist, they’re never going to develop anything to attract the imagination of the top part of the market.”

Norten, he notes, can move between the practical aspects of architecture as well as the artistic ones. And that skill set makes him a growing power in South Florida design circles.


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