South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center is a building that pays homage to the act of performing

“Take your hands,” says the architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia, “as if you were clapping after a performance. Then pull them apart ever so slightly and look at them.”

Now look at Arquitectonica’s new South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, and you will see the central architectural motif — two folded planes wrapping around the sides of a vast glass façade. It’s a subtle enough gesture — a building where the side walls clasp it in an embrace. But this is a building that pays homage to the act and art of performance, and so the metaphor of applause is both appealing and persuasive. The building is its own best playbill.

The arts complex in Cutler Ridge is a pleasing, jaunty, spirited work with walls that tilt playfully — a longtime architectural hallmark of the internationally renowned Miami-based Arquitectonica of which Fort-Brescia is a principal.

Although there was a “soft” opening over the summer, the center makes its official, formal debut Saturday.

Arquitectonica was selected for the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in 1999. It is not the firm’s first such building; that distinction goes to a performing arts complex in Dijon, France, which was completed in 1998. It was followed by a fairly distinguished array of cultural facilities including the Miami Beach home of the Miami City Ballet, the Miami Children’s Museum, the Bronx Museum and many others. That experience proved deeply useful in this project, especially when it came to those essential practical considerations that are too often ignored.

“All along our concern was how it would feel as a patron moving from the car to the building and … right down to the service carts,” points out Laurinda Spear, also an architect and Arquitectonica’s other principal. (She and Fort-Brescia are married.)

“It’s a very interpretive, or interpretable, building,” says Spear.

Most often, performing arts centers are in the midst of it all, downtown or near a center of commerce with museums and parks close at hand. This complex is far from all that, on Southwest 211th Street backing up against the Black Creek Canal. Its nearest neighbors include the South Miami-Dade Government Center with courts, a library, fire station, police station and service facilities, including a county truck wash, and the sprawling Southland Mall.

Thus the complex needed to be grand without being grandiose, a tricky balance to say the least. It needed a memorable enough silhouette and a certain amount of showmanship. It needed to blend in — at least a bit — by day and become a dazzling beacon, a showcase for all the arts, by night.

If you pass by during the daytime, you might look in and see flashes of colored light from the large-scale installation ( Light Field) also by Chambers, the first major public commission for this widely regarded Miami artist.

It is at night that the glass façade becomes a kind of curtain into a different world of color and movement, framing Chambers’ work and animated by the movement and bustle of the theatergoers, transforming the patrons into performance artists themselves.

That the complex was kept small was entirely purposeful. “It was our idea that a smaller space would be versatile, flexible, nimble,” says Michael Spring, Miami-Dade County’s director of Cultural Affairs.  Likewise, a false proscenium arch — a lovely work by the Haitian-born Miami artist Edouard Duval Carrie — allows for more intimate productions.

“We built a jewel box,” says Spring. “The building is exactly as we hoped and dreamed it would be.”


South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center by the numbers:

51 million – the cost of the two-building complex

966 – the number of seats in the 3-story theater building

129 – the number of black box seating

2– the number of stories in the studio/classroom building

3 – amount of orchestra pit height settings, allowing the stage to grow or shrink

20 – distance from downtown Miami in miles

10 tons, 12 tons – weight of the two elliptical sculptures by Robert Chambers, both created from Vermont marble