The Miami Beach Cinematheque, which opened its new location in the city’s historic City Hall building two years ago, is an architectural gem that is also a model of how adaptive reuse can advance the cause of historic preservation. Dana Keith founded the Cinematheque in 2003 in order to establish a new cultural institution that would connect local film lovers with the larger world of independent cinema. The organization’s patronage has contributed a superb work of architecture to a city distinguished by its rich architectural heritage.
The remarkably efficient design is as elegant in its simplicity as it is rich in its spatial effects. The Cinematheque consists of a shell-like construct inserted into the south wing of the old City Hall building’s ground floor, which separates the 75-seat auditorium from the entry vestibule and ambulatory spaces.The design cleverly accommodates six existing structural columns, which are used to frame the auditorium seating with an additional layer of definition, but not enclosure. No real estate is lost to circulation, since the surrounding spaces also serve as display galleries for artwork and posters. The sophisticated layering of spaces creates a series of intimate gathering places, but without a hint of claustrophobia.
The design emphasizes the collective experience of viewing a film. The Cinematheque replaces the impersonal numbered rooms of the multiplex with a space set aside within the metropolis in which to absorb, to be engrossed by, and to discuss cinema. This is a place designed for moviegoers to linger and talk after a movie, rather than bolting for the exits. Another admirable aspect of the design is the decision to leave the Neoclassical landmark’s large arched windows, which line three walls of the room, unobstructed. The prominent windows help visitors feel connected to the existing building – and to the street life of Washington Avenue – at least until the large red velvet curtains are pulled tight to darken the room. The Cinematheque is thoroughly rooted in its historic setting, yet connected to the world through art – the very definition of cosmopolitanism.
Architect Scott Weinkle and interior designer Jeffrey Barone collaborated closely on the project. An experienced cinema designer, Weinkle brought a gift for generating complex spatial relationships with a minimum of formal gestures. Barone added a deft eye for texture and detail, and pushed the team’s interest in using salvaged and locallyproduced materials. The repurposed vintage elements are not nostalgic; instead, they help viewers understand their historical relationship to the heritage of cinema, whose works are now digitally projected from downloaded files. Part of the charm of the place is the juxtaposition of contemporary technology against such idiosyncratic features as an upholstered bench along the back wall of the auditorium and the occasional settee off to one side. The informality of these elements reinforces the sense that this is a place to engage and discuss film, not simply consume it.
A theme of rebirth permeates the place, which has brought new vitality to one of the city’s oldest surviving structures. Miami Beach founder Carl Fisher commissioned architect Martin Luther Hampton to design City Hall soon after the devastating hurricane of 1926, and its completion the following year offered tangible, if misleading, evidence that the city had recovered from the disaster. When the building was renovated in 2008, the underutilized ground floor space called out for a prominent public use. Keith responded by initiating the lengthy process of transferring the Cinematheque from the location on Española Way it had occupied since 2003.
At a time when some of the region’s most beautiful and significant buildings (such as the Miami Herald Building, the Bacardi Building and Miami Marine Stadium, to name just three) languish in the absence of their original uses, the Miami Beach Cinematheque offers a model of adaptive reuse. The project has re-energized a formerly public building with an admirably civic function. Like the nearby Wolfsonian-FIU, the Cinematheque demonstrates the importance of cultural institutions in renewing and transforming the built fabric of the city.