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The Amster Building -- A Case Study of Integrating Art and Architecture

By Anne Wise-Low

A new, Hometown South Miami building exhibits a true flair for art. This summer, sculptor Tony Lopez installed three concrete bas-relief panels on balconies of the Amster Building in South Miami, Fla. Lopez also installed column capitals on the entrance columns and the corners of the building. Architect Maricé Chael of Chael, Cooper & Associates says, "The artwork is integral to the building, and our collaboration with the artist will hopefully lead to other public art projects."

Developed by Harvey Amster, the Amster Building is a 7,000-square-foot mixed-use building located in downtown South Miami along U.S. 1. The building's balconies face the busy highway, offering commuters a radically different view compared to the parking lots and strip shopping centers along most of U.S. 1. In fact, Chael reports that commuters call their office to say they love the building. Initiated from the master-planning efforts of the 1992 Hometown South Miami Plan completed by Dover, Kohl & Partners, the Amster Building replaces an empty grassy area. It adds a much-needed sidewalk dining area at its other entrance. A restaurant will occupy the first and second floors of the building. People seeking to return to urban environments are supporting the renaissance of this main street in South Miami.

Architects Maricé Chael and Tom Cooper envision art as an integral part of building from earliest design development. Their design philosophy includes a desire to build a true and working partnership between artists and architects. In the Amster Building collaboration, the architects designed the building with opportunities for artwork. They detailed the recessed panels where the bas-relief panels would be installed. Bas-relief, a form of sculpture where the figural element projects from the background, is a traditional art form.

Historically, bas-reliefs can be found in Greek and Roman architecture and art through Medieval and Renaissance art. Examples appear in the modern era as well. Sculptor Tony Lopez, a Havana-born artist who maintains a studio in the design district of Miami, worked with the architects in development of the foliage imagery present in the panels.

The foliage imagery incorporated into the panels and column capitals reflects a special aspect of living in South Florida. Beautiful leaves, colorful flowers and unique plants delight both residents and visitors to the South Florida tropical paradise. This imagery gives the building a sense of place, anchoring it to the unique community it serves. Working with an experienced artist, the architects were able to anticipate installation questions, work out details of the design with someone familiar with the technical aspects of bas-reliefs, and consider the nuances of scale with artwork on a third-story balcony.

In a return to traditional forms of public art, Chael, Cooper & Associates and the Amster Building provide a new example of integrating art into architecture at the earliest stages. The benefits of this art and architecture partnership are many, and the Amster Building is a wonderful, contextual addition to its new South Miami neighborhood.