World traveler Eddie Irvine is living the life. The former Formula 1 driver for Ferrari and Jaguar—he won four Grand Prix races in 1999—splits his time between Europe, the Bahamas, and Florida. He’s also building houses, and very nice ones at that.
“He builds really spectacular Tropical Moderns in Miami and Miami Beach,” says landscape architect Christopher Cawley. “He has impeccable taste.”
For his newest home on Hibiscus Island in Miami Beach, Irvine approached Ralph Choeff, principal with Choeff Levy Fischman. Known for cutting-edge design, the firm has come to redefine the midcentury modern style in Florida. And they’re acknowledged masters of the Tropical Modern idiom.
Choeff Levy Fischman is one of our Top 50 Coastal Architects 2018. See the full list here.
The lot’s shape, not its 19,466-square-foot size, drove the new home’s design. The site faces the water on its narrow end, with spectacular views of downtown Miami, then flares out to the rear. “So we preserved and enhanced the views of downtown,” Cawley says. “We worked backward from that.”
The interior arrangement has the most important rooms aligned with the best views. Choeff decided on an L-shaped form that includes 10,448 square feet on two levels. “The site very much guided the design,” the architect says. “It came from a combination of the lot shape and the views.”
It’s tricky business designing on Hibiscus Island these days. Rising sea levels are having their way, so roads are being raised to accommodate a drainage system. And FEMA has a say when it comes to base flood elevations for buildings. “You have to design the first level one foot over FEMA’s requirement, or plus-one, but you have the right to go to FEMA plus-five,” the architect says.
The home faces southwest, which Irvine says yields the best view in Miami. “You see the cruise liners coming in and out; it maximizes that view from the bedrooms and living rooms,” he says. “It’s so spectacular from the swimming pool, the hot tub, and the barbecue. I’m living in a movie shot, really—it’s like a jetliner view of Miami.”
Choeff finds his inspiration in the German modernists who practiced first at the Bauhaus and then in the States, including Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. He also admires the work of Richard Neutra, citing his iconic Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, another home that makes strong connections to its environment. It was commissioned in 1948 by Edgar Kaufmann, who 10 years earlier had asked Frank Lloyd Wright to design Fallingwater in rural Pennsylvania. It, too, famously connects inside to out.
Irvine, who’s been building homes for 25 years now, finds his own inspiration in Wright. “He was a master, but he was also guilty of the things I’m wary about with architects building monuments with your money,” he says. “That’s why I tried to keep it simple, and besides, I didn’t have the means to be so artistic.”
He asked Choeff to design a home that was simple but beautiful, that featured midcentury modern overtones, and that maximized the view of bay and skyline. The pair went back and forth during the design process, collaborating as they worked toward the owner’s ultimate solution.
“I wanted a house I’m happy to own and live in, even if the market goes south, and I don’t want to be in a house where I’ve taken short cuts and made mistakes,” Irvine says. “This is the best one I’ve done, and I’m very happy with the way it turned out. I use it when I’m in Miami. I spend three, four, or five days here and then head back to Europe.”
Choeff spared nothing when it came to materials. He used poured-in-place concrete but with thinner than usual structural members. “The roof and floor have post-tension slabs. We were the first to do that here with single-family residences,” the architect says. “It’s commonly used on high-rise buildings. It costs a bit more for a residence but we used it to get the midcentury modern look we wanted.”
He employed dark-stained ipe paneling outside, light blonde wood for cabinetry inside, and European white oak for floors. Outside he chose limestone stucco, vertical slices of aluminum, and wood grain accents to match the ipe.
Stepping stones at the front entry seem to float over a pool of water below. “Then you open the front door and boom!” he says. “There’s the water, and the palm trees seem to float over the water there too.”
There were design challenges for the architects and the landscape architect to be sure. But Irvine cites finances as his biggest hurdle in making this house a reality. “It was about finding the money so I didn’t have to compromise to get the best, with no short cuts,” he says. “Whatever it needed, I put the best into it.”
That goes for the 784-square-foot swimming pool, and especially the 761-square-foot three-car garage. So what would a Grand Prix-winning, Formula 1 driver, committed to the best in everything, put inside that? “It’s a Mercedes-Benz AMG CLA: a pretty amazing car that’s the most powerful Mercedes has made,” Irvine says. “The quality is second to none.”
Outside, Cawley carefully studied the site’s existing vegetation, analyzing where it could be preserved and where it could be inserted into a new design. He developed a loose tropical theme rather than a rigid landscape plan. Then he set about getting the permits necessary to execute the project, bringing in Brian Rogers of Avalon Gardens as the landscape contractor.
“We had an awesome client and an awesome contractor and an awesome architect,” Cawley says. “If we hadn’t had that team, the project wouldn’t have turned out as well as it did.”
Cawley’s attention to hardscape details—the paving, the walls, and the sliding gates—all reinforce the home’s architecture. The holistic effect suggests the residence has been there forever. “It’s a striking contemporary architecture that evolves out of a Costa Rica-type of landscape,” he says. “The overall impression is of a dynamic environment rather than a house in the middle of a lot.”
As for plantings, Cawley focused on bamboo, Bismarck palms, and coconut palms. There are tropical ground covers and shrubs with limited lawn areas to combat water dependency. All in all, the plants defer to the architecture. “The landscape is the supporting cast member,” he says. “The house is the star of the show.”
But the house also works within its larger context. The big idea, says Choeff, was to blur the lines between indoors and out, with an open plan. “There’s an unusual feature in the kitchen. It opens up to the pool deck area, but you never feel like you’re outside the home,” the architect says.
And that’s exactly what Irvine wanted.