On an island in South Florida, Miami architect Rene Gonzalez has designed the ultimate luxury home, blurring lines between indoors and out and mingling light with shadows. For his clients, it’s paid off handsomely.
That huge sigh of relief you heard last August, soaring skyward from Biscayne Bay toward the heavens above, was released happily by the former owners of one of Miami’s newest residences. Their 30,000-square-foot home’s stripped-down, minimalist style is matched in scale only by its stratospheric closing price of $47 million. It’s a figure that’s earned the project a rarified status as the most expensive home sale in Miami’s history.
Adding to the home’s mythic stature is the fact that it was built on spec in the middle of the Great Recession, for clients who intended not to live in it, but to sell it. “The clients wanted something unique and special,” says Miami-based architect Rene Gonzalez (renegonzalezarchitect.com). “They wanted to rely on the design to make a differential.”
Gonzalez, who has worked diligently over the years to establish himself as one of Miami’s favored architects, is known for his designs in New York, the Hamptons, Guatemala, and Saudi Arabia. The clients for this Indian Creek residence contacted him three years ago to talk it over.
“They wanted to know what my architectural interests were, and if they were closely tied to their own,” says the native of Cuba who arrived in the United States in 1965. “They wanted to create a place tied in a direct way to the environment, a place with Miami’s beautiful quality of light reflected in the bay and the blueness of the sky.”
And they wanted to do it all—with 10 bed- rooms and 10 baths—within two years. “The challenge wasn’t the size, but the complexity,” says Monica Gava, an associate in Gonzalez’s firm. “It was all about cost versus construction, versus design, versus scheduling.”
The clients had already purchased their site on a small, private island that’s four-tenths of a square mile in total, between mainland Miami and North Miami Beach. At the island’s center is an 18-hole golf course, around which 40 homes have been built. Their site enjoys sweeping views of Biscayne Bay.
“The site and the island itself drove the design,” says Kevin Regalado, the home’s project director. “The front of the site and the back are very different.”
The architects designed the home for privacy in the front and transparency where it faces the bay. On the street side, walls extrude out and dense landscape serves as a buffer. “You never see the house from the street—it’s under veil from the landscape,” Regalado says. It’s a residence that responds to its location with a design that’s tucked carefully into its place. Rectangular in shape, its longer sides run east and west, parallel to the bay; natural light from the rising and set- ting sun strongly influenced its architecture.
The home was conceived as a series of pavilions interlaced with gardens, water elements, and shaded paths. When arriving at the lush, tropical auto court, visitors step up to an opening in a wall of Portuguese limestone. Inside, a waterfall spills into a reflecting pool, drawing them through a front gate composed of louvered panels that reflect light onto limestone walls like an artist’s paint on canvas.
The automatic gate opens up to a full view of Biscayne Bay. Visitors step into a series of intimate spaces, each made up of green gardens and turquoise pools. All are punctuated by light that filters through the aluminum louvers painted to look like wood. The light then splashes onto reflecting pools for a rippling effect.
Thus begins a promenade through a series of spaces that open up to wind, water, and native plants. “You continue on a path into the house, but you’re still outdoors,” Gonzalez says. “The experience is about anticipation, of being connected to the environment from the very beginning.”
“The idea is to bring the outdoors in,” says Gava. “You can see it in the courtyard— you’re surrounded by walls, but there are green gardens and sky above. Because of where we are, grounded in Miami, we’re blurring the lines between inside and outside.” Regalado agrees. “You’re in the house and you feel the breeze of the ocean,” he says.
Each pavilion is enclosed by louvers and large glass windows that delicately veil the interiors, while stone walls are used to create a sense of permanence and modern luxury. As the walls guide visitors through the pavilions, they dissolve gently into gardens. Through the layered materials, both porous and opaque, the light is controlled by the architecture. Reflecting pools flow from the outdoor gardens to indoor living spaces, further mingling boundaries between interior and exterior. Inside the house, the materials—even the mahogany doors—take on a magical quality from reflections of light. “It’s beautiful, that special site with its exaggerated shadows,” Gava says.
To achieve the optimum effect with lighting during the transition from daylight to evening hours, the firm turned to New York- based G2J Design (g2jdesign.com), a group that specializes in architectural lighting for interior and exterior spaces. Partners Juan De Leon and Gan Leehanantakul work regularly on restaurants, hospitality projects, and luxury residences around the world. At the Indian Creek residence, the pair sought to maximize the impact of both sunlight and moonlight. “Our lighting concept needed to be simple but powerful, so it would not compete with the architectural design,” Leehanantakul says.
Once the sun sets, G2J’s lighting design takes control of the house and transforms the spaces in soft and romantic ways, from the time of a visitor’s approach, to the first step inside, to a lingering view of the night-time sky. “We came up with a ‘moon concept’ of using indirect light,” Leehanantakul says. “The moon has no light source, but is glowing by reflecting indirect light from the sun. At night, we like to see the house glow as a lantern from the indirect light inside the house. The main feature of the architectural design, which is the louver system panel, becomes a silhouette and serves as a shade or a screen of the lantern.”
When guests walk into the main entry, the lighting elicits a “Wow!” effect as a welcoming gesture. “We concealed the up-lighting underwater fixtures and controlled water movement to create ‘real water effects’ on the walls and ceilings at the entry hall,” Leehanantakul says.
Though a bright Miami sky may dominate the home during the day, at night it’s a different story. “Especially at this site, which is far away from the light pollution of tall buildings in the city, the sky is very dark and you can see the stars,” Leehanantakul says.
The emotional impact of the entire experience throughout the home is a simultaneous, continuous sense of tranquility and surprise. “You feel all these elements around you, all the time,” says Gava. “It’s not abstract—it’s literal.”
It’s also an architectural experience that’s paid off in spades for the clients—and one that yielded a record-breaking sale during the worst economy since the Great Depression.
Image Credits: Luis Travieso.