The most beautiful building in Miami is a car park, and I am not sneering.
This is not a city bereft of architectural credentials, having given us the streamlines of Miami Deco (1930s) and MiMo – Miami Modern (1950s). The car park concerned, known as 1111 Lincoln Road, is designed by the go-to architects of the moment – Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss firm behind London's Tate Modern and the Bird's Nest in Beijing.
Can a car park aspire to glamour? Hell yeah. By day it looks like a house of concrete cards held in place by a series of improbable wedge-shaped pillars; by night its tiered decks seem to float on triangular panes of light. The building is such an instant hit that anyone attempting to park here has to weave between fashion shoots and young couples holding wedding ceremonies.
Glamour has always been a spluttering element in Miami's repertoire. The sunshine, the beach, the mobsters and the movie stars have all combined to lend this city a louche charm, but it never took itself terribly seriously. It's a holiday town, as frothy as a pina colada; the cocktail, however, went very sour during decades of neglect in the 1970s and 1980s.
It says something about a city when its defining movie is Scarface. Though most of the film was shot in California, the infamous chainsaw scene was filmed here at 728 Ocean Drive. One telling crane-shot follows Tony Montana and his gang cruising to the gory showdown along the now famous Art Deco seafront; the background reveals the peeling paintwork and sad dilapidation of the area when the film was made in 1983.
The Sun Ray Apartment building is still there between the immaculately restored façades of the Beacon and Colony Hotels, but it is barely recognisable. It now houses a Johnny Rocket burger franchise and, perhaps inevitably, a model agency.
The well-hyped makeover of SoBe (South Beach) in the Eighties saw such adjectives as "hip" and "cool" attach themselves to the city. But in the 21st century the elders, or whoever decides these things, thought it was time Miami grew up, good and proper. In an effort to cash in on its geopositioning, the city is being rebranded as the cultural crossroads of the Americas – linking the Latin south, the Wasp north and their colonial progenitors. Concert halls, galleries (and car parks) by world-ranking architects are all part of this grander design.
The opening of Frank Gehry's New World Center is the cue for my visit. It is a big deal, but openings are becoming almost routine. Wynwood, bordering the Design District, is in the throes of gentrification and perhaps best exemplifies the speed of change. The edgy Puerto Rican 'hood of 10 years ago is unrecognisable under newly minted art galleries, loft apartments and restaurants. One of the newest is Wynwood Kitchen and Bar – part restaurant, part art installation – another project from Tony Goldman, the property big noise credited with the transformation of New York's SoHo and much of South Beach.
Goldman has a knack of seeing opportunity where others see urban decay. His vision for Wynwood involves street art on a heroic scale – turning the walls of former warehouses in the area into giant murals. Inside the Kitchen and Bar, "street" artist Shepard Fairey has papered the interior in trademark red, black and white portraits (he did the famous Obama "Hope" poster) and intricate kaleidoscopic patterns bearing his "Obey" tag and bomb graphics. It is instantly accessible and has the kind of well-mannered subversive quality that the art market loves. It is undeniably very superior wallpaper.
Fairey borrows from a wide variety of sources and a similar eclecticism is evident in the food. This is not just a Miami trend, but a US mania. The Kitchen and Bar menu zips around the world like a hyperactive drone, beaming back ponzu (Japan), ceviche (Peru), gazpacho (Spain), baba ghanoush (Lebanon), jalapeño (Mexico) and aïoli (France). And that's just for starters. It's confected with care but the effect can be quite dizzying.
It happens again at the Sushisamba on Lincoln Road – this time the result is not quite as benign. Sushi and samba? One is a food, the other a dance; one comes from Japan, the other from Brazil. Aside from the forced alliteration, the two make no sense together. Spicy Latin flavours bully and overwhelm the subtle tonalities of raw fish. The US is the great melting pot, but these chefs seem to have taken Tony Montana's "The world is yours" motto a touch literally. Guys, stop messing.
Sanity is restored at Quattro Gastronomia Italiana a few blocks along Lincoln, where the message is: keep it simple, stupid. The food is served by Piemontese chefs who believe in letting good ingredients and a great tradition speak for themselves. Burrata fresca from Puglia, porcini ravioli, spaghetti vongole and saltimbocca all look comfortable in each other's company on the menu. The spectacular bar at the end of the room faced in mirror bricks could almost be an altar, making the restaurant a shrine where diners can find sanctuary from the evils of fusion and confusion.
The ambitious regeneration-through-culture plan is taking shape downtown where the unfortunately named Arsht Center opened five years ago. Designed by Cesar Pelli, it occupies some 570,000sq ft and provides multiple performance spaces for resident companies including the Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet and the New World Symphony (who now also have a couture base in Gehry's sparkling new building). The world-ranking Cleveland Orchestra is in town for a residency. The centre is undoubtedly a heavyweight, the second largest in the US, but the sheer bulk of the complex alienates me. From a distance its charmless profiles conjure a hangar for Darth Vader's Imperial Starfleet.
The Arsht Center will, however, become part of a new culture zone that will cut a swathe across the unfriendly voids of downtown to a museum park where the new Miami Science Museum (to be designed by Grimshaw Associates) and the new Miami Art Museum (designed by the ubiquitous Herzog & de Meuron partnership) will be sited. Judging by the drawings, the stunning HdM design will be sensitive to its prime waterfront location, incorporating public plazas and hanging gardens. It looks set to do for downtown Miami what the Tate Modern did for Bankside in London. But it is still two or three years away.
The Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, however, is triumphantly in the here and now. It has been the chatter of Miami for long enough, having taken nine years from its inception. For a centre whose primary purpose is to showcase classical music, the buzz on the street is remarkable. I am in the Apple store in Lincoln Road talking to one of the teenage sales staff. When I mention that I am here to write about the opening of the Center, he perks up. "Wow, I can't wait to go to a concert there." I break the news to him that opening night gala tickets start at $2,500 (£1,560) each with corporate tables for dinner starting at $100,000. He still looks delighted. "I guess I might have to wait a couple of weeks."
The extraordinary truth is he doesn't have to wait to see a performance. Even in the opening week of galas and press nights, the music from inside the intimate concert hall (audience capacity of just 756) is being taken to the people. The front of the hall has a 7,000sq ft wall on to which a 10-camera live feed of the performance is projected by immensely powerful digital projectors. The sound system is also top notch and, frankly, it's a toss up as to whether the experience inside or al fresco amid palm trees and sunset is the more enticing.
The building conceals its true character by day – looking remarkably un-Gehry like. It is a pleasant white rectangular box, with a smart 80ft glass atrium – it could be a convention centre. As the sun sets the lighting within comes into play, revealing a jumble of white cones and tumbling cubes inside that bear the unmistakable signature of the architect.
The New World Symphony is an academy for outstanding young musicians and is much more than a concert hall. In keeping with the founder and director Michael Tilson Thomas's technocratic vision, the many rehearsal rooms, classrooms and sound recording suites are wired for the digital era. The whole complex hums with 17 miles of fibre-optic cabling for Internet2 broadband – 100 times faster than the internet of ordinary mortals – it is intended for musical interaction with colleagues and teachers across the world in real time.
Since we don't have $2,500 tickets for the actual gala later in the day, my press group is invited to sit in as Tilson Thomas rehearses his young orchestra. They run through Pictures at an Exhibition by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. It is a crowd pleaser and I remember 1970s prog-rock dinosaurs Emerson, Lake and Palmer having a bash at the same piece and obliterating its dynamics and subtleties. Here, every murmur of the violin, every trill of the oboe rings out in perfect clarity and then, overhead, the curvilinear acoustic sails that sweep down from ceiling light up with video projections.
Mussorgsky was inspired by the real pictures of an artist called Viktor Hartmann at an exhibition in St Petersburg in 1874. Here, on the billowing acoustic panels 137 years later, the pictures come to life in animations specially commissioned from film students at the University of Southern California. The live multi-screen projections follow every cue in the music and their scale is overwhelming. The concert hall is awash with magical creatures, gravestones, a busy fish market on fast forward, Jewish figures from the shtetls, Hebrew calligraphy, and a hut that stands up and walks on chicken legs.
Flattened against my seat, neck craned upwards, I feel like a child – wide eyed, breathless and swept along by the tide of music and light. The rehearsal ends with the thumping march of "The Great Gate of Kiev". It reaches a crescendo and then ... silence.
The technicians in the hall start whooping and clapping. I exhale. I have seen the future and it is classical.
How to get there
Sankha Guha was a guest of the Greater Miami CVB (020-7978 5233; miamiandbeaches.com). The Biltmore Hotel (biltmorehotel.com) offers superior rooms from $199 (£123) per night. The Sonesta Coconut Grove (sonesta.com/coconutgrove) offers superior rooms from $139 per night.Reuse content