The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Miami’s skyline booms, the future of a long-neglected tropical brutalist gem hangs in the balance

The Miami Marine Stadium, considered a gem of tropical brutalism, is pictured on Feb. 22. (Christine Armario/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of University of Miami architectural design professor Jean-Francois Lejeune. The article has been corrected.

MIAMI — Hilario Candela had barely landed in Miami along with a wave of Cuban exiles fleeing Fidel Castro’s communist revolution when he found himself with an intriguing assignment: designing a stadium along the city’s gleaming Biscayne Bay.

The firm with which he had found a job as a junior architect had been given a small budget to create a prefabricated-style grandstand. But taking a cue from his counterparts in Latin America, he envisioned something more.

Brutalism was all the rage and, unlike European designers, those in countries such as Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela were giving raw, exposed concrete construction a tropical twist. Harsh edges were turned into graceful curves, mimicking the lush landscape. Candela drew particular inspiration from the thin concrete arches at Havana’s Tropicana nightclub.

The result was a towering concrete stadium with a unique wavelike roof that architects have hailed as a gem of tropical brutalism. The 28-year-old immigrant had unknowingly, perhaps, created a landmark building — one that would become a hub for the city’s cultural life as Miami’s population boomed.

Six decades later, as Miami’s skyline rapidly fills with gleaming condominiums, Miami Marine Stadium — and the city — are at a crossroads. Shuttered since Hurricane Andrew blew through in 1992, Candela’s prize structure has sat neglected for nearly 30 years. Now city commissioners are expected to decide whether to authorize $61.2 million in revenue-bond financing for the graffiti-covered stadium’s potential restoration.

Architects and some city leaders and activists say the decision will signal the extent to which Miami officials are keen on preserving the city’s relatively limited repertoire of historic buildings when real estate demand is surging. The pandemic lured new Miamians from New York and Los Angeles trading small apartments for the tropics. The city’s income inequality has soared, and by one analysis, it is now comparable to that of Colombia.

At Miami’s Art Basel, a canvas of global inequality in the pandemic age

Proponents of restoring Miami Marine Stadium say the city should prioritize holding on to historic sites as towering new glass hotels and condos emerge — something the city does not have a reputation for doing. In January, a building official in nearby Miami Beach ordered the demolition of the Deauville Beach Resort, where the Beatles and Frank Sinatra stayed, concluding that the building opened in 1957 was unsafe and restoration practically impossible. Even if the funding is approved, restoring the stadium would still need to clear several hurdles, including authorizing bids for construction and finding an operator.

Should the project proceed, one major voice will be missing: Candela’s. The architect who had been a proponent for the stadium’s restoration died at 87 of covid-19 in January. Advocates say local leaders have dragged their feet for too long.

“They don’t celebrate Miami’s history,” said Tomás Regalado, a former city mayor. “They’d rather talk about the future. And I understand that, but you cannot build a future if you don’t have a history and you don’t celebrate your history.”

‘Where the land and the sea kiss’

Born and raised in Havana, Candela studied at Georgia Tech and returned to Cuba with dreams of charting a career in architecture. The capital city was a ripe place for a young designer, home to a unique mix of baroque, neoclassical, art deco and other style buildings that spanned eras. But as Castro began expropriating properties, hopes for eclectic new construction were dashed. Like many, Candela sought refuge in Miami, which, at the time, was a city without a major skyline.

Miami did not have brutalist buildings when Candela arrived. But as the city emerged to become affectionately known as the “Northern Capital of Latin America,” architects from Cuba and elsewhere brought inspiration with them.

In Caracas, Carlos Raúl Villanueva had built a sprawling campus for the Central University of Venezuela, filled with buildings and a swimming pool using the crisp lines and streamlined sensibility of modern architecture. In Mexico, Félix Candela — a distant relative — constructed the Bacardi warehouse complex with concrete shells that arched toward the sky while also letting ample light in. In Cuba, the use of thin concrete layers to construct vaults and arches had begun taking hold — material easy to shape and well-suited for the humid tropical environment.

“You can create beautiful curves, beautiful movement,” said Jean-Francois Lejeune, an architectural design professor at the University of Miami. “You can actually do whatever you want.”

Shortly after arriving in Miami, Hilario Candela went to a courthouse to fill out his residency documents. There, he had a chance encounter with one of his professors from Georgia Tech, two of his sons recalled. The professor offered him some work, which eventually led to a position at a firm called Pancoast, Ferendino, Skeels and Burnham. Not long after, the stadium project emerged.

Hilary and Maurice Candela, the architect’s sons, said their father immediately grasped that the stadium had the potential to become a signature building in Miami, where thousands of Cuban exiles were beginning to put down roots in a foreign land.

“He basically refused to accept that this building would just be a prefabricated thing,” Maurice Candela said.

Still, his design was particularly ambitious for its time.

There was no computer modeling. No advanced calculators. Candela envisioned a giant concrete cantilevered roof that would hang over about 6,500 spectators, supported with reinforced steel and counterweights in the rear — at the time the largest such roof in the world. It would take a feat of not just design but also structural engineering to see it through.

“Today we build buildings with structural models that are literally in the computer, and the computer is doing a lot of that work for us,” said Richard Heisenbottle, who worked hand-in-hand with Candela in developing the city’s restoration model. “This structural engineering was done on a yellow pad.”

Despite the heavy concrete material, Candela envisioned the stadium as a graceful structure by the bay, a place “where the land and the sea kiss.” Experienced carpenters were called in to craft wooden molds. The cement was poured. The stadium was made.

‘The most Cuban building in Miami’

The next three decades, by many accounts, put Miami on the map.

Miami’s population soared as waves of Cuban migrants and others from Latin America transformed the city. For many, a stop at Miami Marine Stadium was a must, particularly on Sept. 8, the date Cubans celebrate their island’s patron saint, the Virgen de la Caridad, because thousands gathered at the stadium every year to watch a reproduction of the saint smuggled from Cuba arrive by boat for a special service.

Regalado, a Spanish-language radio journalist at the time, remembers offering live coverage of the religious procession, which became an emotional service as years dragged on when families remained separated and many lost hope that they’d ever return to Cuba.

“Virgen de la Caridad, save Cuba!” people chanted.

“It totally connects the history of the Cuban American immigration to Miami to the greater … sports community of the city,” said Rosa Lowinger, a Cuban-born art conservator.

Over time, the building became dubbed “the most Cuban building in Miami.” To be sure, though, it drew spectators from all throughout the city. President Richard Nixon used Marine Stadium to hold a rally. The Who, Queen, Gloria Estefan and Jimmy Buffett all commanded the stage. Spectators paid $3 for entry, while others danced and sang along from nearby boats.

“It captured the optimism of the ’60s,” said Gaspar González, a documentary filmmaker.

That all came to an abrupt end after Hurricane Andrew devastated Miami. The stadium was closed in the wake of the Category 5 storm. City commissioners couldn’t agree about what to do with it. One administration determined it should be demolished. The same features that had made the stadium a marvel, they feared, left it at risk of collapse.

Candela had gone on to a successful architecture career, but Marine Stadium in many ways was his crowning achievement. He rallied local leaders and preservationists, calling on it to be saved. Ultimately, studies found, the building was structurally sound.

In 2016, the city authorized up to $45 million in revenue-bond financing to restore the stadium, and two years later, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A high-profile architecture firm was hired to study the building and finalize reconstruction plans.

That work has continued behind the scenes in the years since — but at such a slow pace that the bond authorization has expired. The soaring cost of construction and inflation have hiked the price 36 percent.

“If the money dries up, there’s no project,” said Ken Russell, a city commissioner who has expressed support for pushing forward with the stadium’s restoration.

Rising inequality and ‘air-conditioned boxes’

Driving along the Rickenbacker Causeway, you can easily miss the stadium.

Tucked behind a giant parking lot, it stands small compared with the gargantuan condo towers being built across the bay in the city’s downtown, once a place few ventured but now teeming with foot traffic, new residents and restaurants serving $37 truffle pizzas.

“Those condominium towers are far from tropical buildings,” said Lejeune, the University of Miami architect. “They are glazed on all sides. They face the sun in all directions. They are air-conditioned boxes.”

Not everyone sees it that way.

The stadium was not a financial success story in its time, and some fear it wouldn’t be today, either. Architects note that it has always been harder to preserve and get modern buildings such as the Marine Stadium the same attention as art deco buildings with terrazzo floors or stately Mediterranean revival homes. The stadium cannot be torn down, because it is deemed historic, but some still fear “demolition by neglect.”

City Commissioner Joe Carollo once speculated that the city was “creating another white elephant” that would lose money. At a meeting Thursday where commissioners were expected to vote on the bond financing, Carollo once again raised questions about the stadium’s long-term revenue prospects. Ultimately, the vote was deferred until late May for further analysis.

For the stadium’s supporters, Miami’s rising inequality makes its restoration all the more important. The city now ranks among the nation’s most densely populated urban areas. Condo prices have risen 27 percent from a year earlier, according to the Miami Association of Realtors. Newcomers with heftier salaries are willing to pay more, driving up rents and squeezing many out.

“Miami’s waterfront, with the exception of the beaches, is owned and dominated by wealthy people,” said Donald Worth, a longtime advocate for the stadium’s restoration. “At the Marine Stadium, everybody’s a VIP.”

Candela’s family members, for their part, regret that if a stadium restoration does finally advance — 30 years after it was closed to the public — the architect won’t be there to celebrate it. They’d long dreamed of going back with his 15 grandchildren to sit in the stand and watch a ribbon cutting.

“We could talk about the city becoming the crypto capital of the world, and yet we can’t find the way to raise the necessary funds to bring the stadium back to life,” Hilary Candela said. “I hope it happens. It should happen. It needs to happen.”