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Bacardi Building Sports Spirited Design


January 22, 2005
Copyright © 2005 MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

In the 1980s, when Biscayne Boulevard had deteriorated into a shabby, neglected strip, the Bacardi company was urged to move its North American headquarters to a nicer stretch, in Coral Gables.

But the Bacardi brain trust, as strong-willed as the Cuban family of rum-runners, artists and freedom fighters that founded the company, said no.

Good thing. Today, the Bacardi buildings rise majestically above a vibrant, reborn boulevard. And the company, which says its flagship brand of rum is the world's best-selling spirit, is being honored by the Wolfsonian Museum-Florida International University for its contribution to architecture, as embodied by the two Miami buildings that went up on the boulevard in the '60s and '70s.

Each year, as part of its Very Wolfsonian Weekend fundraiser, the museum hosts a party at a local building or buildings whose architecture is deemed distinctive but underappreciated. Wolfsonian director Cathy Leff, who scheduled tonight's party at Bacardi, said the buildings, with their blue tile, abstract designs and ornate stained glass, fit the bill. They constitute ''one of the best examples of how good architecture defines our city,'' she said.

For Bacardi, a company not known for spending money to polish its corporate image, tonight is a coming out party, of sorts.

Leff wants the community to see Bacardi, which she calls ''a very generous corporate citizen,'' as a model of how to be ``conscientious about the buildings we build and their quality.''

Bacardi archivist Pepín Argamasilla says the Biscayne-facing structure -- built in 1963 on the west side of the boulevard and known locally as the ''blue-tile building'' -- was the ``first Cuban-inspired architecture in Miami.''

Raúl Rodríguez, a student of Cuban and Cuban-American architecture, says it's ''the first concrete example of the Cuban roots that began with the exile of 1959.'' Already Cuba's most international company, Bacardi built a structure that Rodríguez calls ``more characteristic of Havana than Miami.''


Most important, he said, it was a ''representation of a certain permanence.'' Contradicting the exiles' hope for a prompt return, the structure and its aesthetics showed the Cubans were here to stay.

That first building, opened in 1964, reflected the international style that dominated Cuban architecture in the '50s, an affluent time for the entrepreneurial and professional classes that led the exile from Castro's government.

''What was so modern about Bacardi,'' said Leff, ``is that unlike others in Miami who were always reinventing history with Mediterranean Revival or Neo Deco, they did not look back. They were very modern and are still modern.''

The first Bacardi building joined the last hurrah of old Biscayne Boulevard, which had been developed in the '20s in Mediterranean Revival style. Designed by Cuban architect Enrique Gutiérrez, based in Puerto Rico, it was then the tallest building on the boulevard.


It was far from the company's first foray into architectural excellence. Bacardi's Havana headquarters is an Art Deco landmark, with a nymph-adorned façade by Maxfield Parrish. In 1957, Bacardi President Pepín Bosch commissioned noted architect Mies van der Rohe to design a building in Santiago, Bacardi's birthplace. The plans were quashed two years later by the Cuban revolution.

Van der Rohe did design two other Bacardi buildings, one in Mexico and another for the international headquarters in Bermuda.

With the Bacardi acquisition of Martini & Rossi in 1992 came a number of historic buildings, including the Chateau de Cologne, where François I of France was born.

In 1972, Bacardi commissioned the Annex, adjacent to its Biscayne Boulevard building. (The low-slung Bacardi building on the east side of Biscayne has no architectural significance.)

The original structure had been built to be earthquake proof, a quirky but ultimately useful measure for South Florida. The building hangs from a complex system of pillars, pulleys and cables and will actually sway under earthquake conditions -- but it works as well in resisting tropical storm winds. The Annex, as the back building is called, does the same.

And like the main building, the Annex is boldly adorned, not with blue tiles but with stained glass that gives the impression of opaque but decorated walls during the day and glows with office lights at night. And while the front building's tile work represents abstract versions of flowers, designed and made by Brazilian artist Francisco Brennand, the Annex's walls tell, also abstractly, the story of how rum is made from sugar cane, in a design by German artist Johannes Dietz.


Like rum, art runs through the Bacardi veins. The family history includes four artists, the best known being Emilio Bacardi, son of founder Facundo.

Emilio has a place in Cuban history as a scion of the family business, as well as an early Cuban artist, some of whose work is displayed in the Miami building. Even more, however, he is known as one of Cuba's first important novelists, and as a freedom fighter imprisoned in North Africa by the Spaniards for his pursuit of Cuban independence.

Eddie Sardiñas, who heads the U.S. branch of the firm, said Bacardi has not trumpeted its architecture because ``it is a low-key, privately owned company.''

Leff said that is part of the point.


''People think good buildings cost more,'' she said. ``It has nothing to do with cost. The Wolfsonian is interested not only in architecture and design but also in corporate identity and how design enhances it.''

At this point in its history, the Cuban-founded international company may be ripe to reap the rewards of its commitment to aesthetic quality and its ''obstinacy'' about what architecture says about both corporate and cultural identity.

''In eight years, the front building will be eligible for historic designation,'' Rodríguez said. ``To architects who can read the language of the building, it has suffered from not sympathetic additions, like a shutter system, that detract from its purity. I would encourage its restoration in time for the designation.''

What makes this possible, he said, is what made the building possible in the first place: private ownership and the stability of the firm. ''When it was built,'' Rodríguez said, ``it was an exclamation sign on the boulevard.''


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