Conor Andrich: Miami as Text 2020

Photo by German Ruiz, CC by 4.0

My name is Conor Andrich. I study photography and digital media at Florida International University, where I am a member of the Honors College, the class of 2022, and Professor John Bailly’s Summer 2020 study abroad trip to Paris.

Vizcaya As Text

Photo by Conor Andrich, CC by 4.0

There is of course much to admire at Vizcaya. You feel yourself return to nature as you walk through the exquisite native forest, the façade is mesmerizing as it emerges from the trees, and, upon walking inside, the grandiosity of the building is intoxicating. But as I ventured farther into the property, inspecting its details and learning its history, as it often does the intoxication turned to nausea. From staggering displays of opulence to baffling manifestations of ego and oppression, Vizcaya did not have the magical effect on me that I had anticipated.

This begins with the interior which, although filled with beautiful works of art, lacked elegance and cohesion. This was at odds with the natural beauty that is the estate’s trademark and took away from the exquisiteness of many of the individual pieces. The whirlwind of styles disoriented me and seemed to be little more than a vapid display of wealth. Whether this is a grievance I have with the house specifically or the Rococo style as a whole I have yet to fully determine, but nonetheless the lavishness of the house is not the root of the issue. Grandiose structures such as Versailles and even the United States Capitol are about as indulgent as they come and are the product of similar architectural approaches, but what sets such buildings apart from Vizcaya is a sense of purpose. These buildings represent the spirit of entire nations, abridging centuries of history into one monument. Vizcaya, on the other hand, struck me as representative of little more than one man’s inflated ego, built in an attempt to outmatch his own brother and outrun his own impermanence. This is exemplified through features such as the arch that leads into the garden. This is meant to be an homage to the Arc de Triomphe, but due to the Arc’s status as a material précis of French courage and victory, the tribute feels hollow.

This sense of hollowness was furthered by many of proprietor James Deering’s other design choices and the purpose they served. Much of the estate seemed to be a celebration of excess rather than a celebration of beauty, and the house dripped sordidly with glut. The painted fake marble was bizarre, the hidden door-slash-false bookshelf was outlandish, and I audibly groaned at the “J’ai Dit” stained glass. Deering even implied via sculpture an equivalence between himself and Ponce De Leon.

This self-aggrandizement is underscored by the race- and class-based oppression that is woven into the fabric of Vizcaya. The labor practices that produced Vizcaya, despite being shameful compared to modern standards, were still somewhat commonplace at the time, so it would not entirely be in good faith to criticize it simply on these grounds. However, learning the extent to which Deering subjugated his workers was perturbing. He ensured that the black laborers who sustained his luxurious lifestyle could be neither seen nor heard, using hollowed walls and cork floors as a means of concealing (and in doing so, dehumanizing) them. This further served Deering’s ego, once again using the design of his home to posture himself as a superlative figure. I may have been more forgiving here if the estate had made a better attempt at retribution, but seeing as one of the few real visible tributes to these people is a series of small portraits featuring white artist David Rohn posing in darkened makeup in an attempt to portray various Caribbean servants, I cannot grant it such clemency.

Before visiting Vizcaya for the first time last Friday, I was not quite sure what to expect. I hoped to understand why this place holds such a prized place in South Florida’s lore. However, I left disenchanted. Although I appreciate the natural beauty and respect Deering’s contributions to conservation, much of the estate struck me as excess for excess’ sake and little more, and I could not reconcile this gut feeling with my artistic and political sensibilities.

Freedom Tower As Text

Few structures so perfectly encapsulate the rich history of Miami, all of the beauty it boasts and the tumult it has faced, as the Freedom Tower. Immigrants made this city what it is today, and without their vibrant cultural diversity it would be unrecognizable. By the preservation of such a landmark we ensure that their stories are forever impressed onto the concrete like a child’s handprint, a permanent marker of their hopes and aspirations. Seeing the faces of those who passed through the building on their way to a better life gave me a renewed appreciation for their struggle. Looking into their eyes I felt both a sharp poignancy and a warm gratitude. They plunged into the unknown and came up stronger on the other side. Although I am not Cuban, my family history follows a similar narrative. As the United Kingdom cracked down on Irish independence and civil war raged on, the country became unsafe. My great-grandmother was three years old when she was put on a boat set for New York City, alone in the world for those long days at sea. I cannot imagine the fear and confusion she must have felt, too young to comprehend the seismic shift taking place in her life. Nevertheless, she faced the future head-on, setting the stage for what is soon to be a century of my family history. She arrived at Ellis Island in the fall of 1922, and the name Bayliss is inscribed there to this day. Seeing the faces and learning the stories of the children who passed through the Freedom Tower was a profound experience for me. They faced immense hardship head-on and never flinched, making so much possible for us today. My understanding and appreciation of what made Miami the thriving metropolis it is today has been deepened, and I believe every Miamian should try to visit.

Deering Estate As Text

When visiting Vizcaya for the first time earlier in the semester, I fell to the whim of its designer, James Deering: I compared it directly to the Deering Estate, the Palmetto Bay villa of which his older brother Charles was the proprietor. James’ opulent residence, however, did not weather this comparison in the way he would have hoped. I adore the Deering Estate. Its quaint brand of elegance is a tasteful antithesis to the bombastic egoism of Vizcaya, its commitment to ecology is far more tangible, and it bears a sense of homeliness that its palatial counterpart lacks.

My first time at the Deering Estate was in January for Richard Blanco’s poetry reading. I arrived an hour early to explore the grounds, walked through the brisk air down to the waterfront, watched the foam lap against the coquina seawalls. I spotted manatees playing in the bay, saw their noses emerge from the depths, watched the morning light refract through the spray from their breath. I took the long way back to the house, passed through the naturally lush gardens, took in the brilliant color of a bottlebrush tree. I felt the sun on my face, put on Clube Da Esquina by Lô Borges & Milton Nascimiento, and napped in the soft grass under the sweet shade of a bullet tree. I then rubbed the sleep from my eyes, walked back through the trees towards the house, and took in Richard’s heartfelt reading in a high-ceilinged room with light flooding across the checkered marble tile.

At the Deering Estate I felt a sense of belonging that I certainly did not feel at Vizcaya. The property was beautiful, and I felt at peace amidst the natural beauty of Florida. I have not yet had the opportunity to return, but when I get the chance I won’t hesitate to whittle away another day under the trees.

Miami Beach As Text

Photos by Conor Andrich, CC by 4.0

My first ever trip to Miami was in November 2014. My family had moved to Florida only five months prior, and Miami seemed to me the crown jewel of this still unfamiliar state. I had the perception you would expect from a 14-year-old boy who only knew the city through Scarface, Rick Ross music videos, and LeBron James’ “Decision”: a raucous city on the water where anything goes. Naturally, Miami Beach was at the heart of these ideations and the top of the agenda. In an absurd stroke of fortuity, Will Smith’s ‘Welcome To Miami’ came on the radio as we traversed the MacAthur Causeway. We parked a block from the beach, around the corner from the Versace Mansion. Although the thick ivy covering the wrought-iron walls made it so I could barely see its coralline walls I felt just like Drake. I kicked off my shoes, headed to the water, and immediately confirmed every single one of my premonitions.

“Oh yeah baby just like that, damn girl!”

A man in cargo shorts and fake designer sunglasses snapped photos of a topless woman facing the horizon in a purple thong, her gyrating hips leaving a wake that rivaled the passing cruise ships. It was absurd in the exact way I expected Miami to be, flamboyant for the sake of it, performative whether or not there’s an audience. I stood there in a daze, nobody else on the sprawling white beach paid it any mind. My sister covered her eyes, my mom just laughed.

As I have returned to South Beach over the years, I have grown a deeper appreciation for the history of the community but find myself overwhelmed by the excess. Although my relationship with the place has grown complicated, that first impression has never left me, and surely never will.

HistoryMiami As Text

Surrounded by the glitz and glamour of modern Miami, from the grandiose villas and stylish Art Deco edifices of the 20th century to the sparkling skyscrapers of the 21st, it is easy to forget that our marshy expanse of land between the Everglades and the Atlantic has been home to human civilizations for thousands of years. Past its status as a cultural hub and international conduit, Miami plays a crucial role in the history of America’s indigenous peoples, the subsequent colonization that endangered them, and the transition from these turbulent times into the modern age. This storied past fundamentally shaped the metropolis that we see today, its impact frequently ostensible but often imperceptibly structural. For this reason it is indispensable that we ensure the preservation and consideration of our history, and that is why institutions such as HistoryMiami are so crucial.

Of the museums we planned to visit as a class this semester, HistoryMiami was the only one that I had never previously been to. I came to regret this while reading about the contents of the museum in Professor Bailly’s online walking tour. The collection of ancient indigenous artifacts, including carved wooden implements, turtle shell tools, and stone weapons, along with vivid recreations of their communities and lifestyles, presents us with a rich portrayal of the Tequesta people and shows where Miami began. They also detail how indigenous demographics in the area changed over time, with the arrival of Seminoles and Creeks in proceeding centuries. From there they bring us through time, from European colonization to the early agricultural pioneers to the advent of the railroad and subsequent dawn of the modern age of industrialization and immigration, with records and artifacts to resurrect these periods and the unique sufferings and successes that marked them. It seems that in a single visit one can come to a much deeper understanding of how Miami became what it is today, and for that reason it is a cornerstone of our community. When we are finally able to return to public spaces, HistoryMiami will certainly be near the top of my list.

Author: miamiastext

Admin Account for Miami in Miami

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