The effect that context and setting can have on a building can be startling. Taken in isolation, the Villa Vizcaya in Miami represents a beautiful encapsulation of Italian revival architecture and garden landscaping: but what sets it apart is that this old-world oasis is sandwiched between lagoon and mangrove forest. As you walk through its opulent interiors and lush gardens, one must continually remind themselves that not only are you not in Tuscany, but that only meters away lie alligators and manatees!
The Villa Vizcaya was the ambitious brainchild of the Northern industrialist James Deering. After making his fortune selling agricultural machinery, in 1910 Deering decided to build a holiday home in Florida. To this end he enlisted the help of Paul Chalfin, a fascinating mixture of trained artist, architectural enthusiast, and amateur scholar in whom Deering found one of history’s most inventive interior designers. The two men established a partnership that would see them tour Europe, collecting a bewildering range of old-world objects that ranged from Gothic choir stalls to Baroque fireplaces and Neoclassical trappings. Around these treasures they built a house, carving the huge villa and gardens out of the swamp.
Yet, despite the presence of an art history course worth of artefacts, the house feels less like a gallery than a work of art in itself. The bewildering range of styles blending seamlessly into a sequence of differently themed rooms. One might enter a brilliantly lit Versailles-esque loggia where Deering established one of the world’s first home cinema projectors for his guests, and then pass into a dark oak dining room straight out of a Spanish Alcazar. While the overall theme of the house could be described as Mediterranean revival, the sheer range of genres means it rarely feels like a pastiche. Additionally, the fact that the Villa was intended as a place of relaxation adds a certain lightness of touch to the weighty trappings of wealth and history. Take my favourite feature of the house as an example, a 100-foot-long stone barge fashioned from petrified coral that sits in the waters of the bay. Visible through an arcade of Neo-Classical doorways, Deering used to host dinner parties on its ‘deck’: ferrying his guests across the waters on a fleet of gondolas in an exercise that feels more fun than it does stuffy.
It is astounding to think that the Villa was only completed 100 years ago; for the illusion of history created by Chalfin is so successful. Yet, perhaps its presence in one of the newest cities in the US makes this century feel a lot older. The visit (having spent the day wondering through the gleaming postmodernism of Miami) was an impressive reminder of the power of relativity on our historical imagination. Miami in the 1910s (when Deering built his Villa) was a town of less than 6000 inhabitants clinging to a small strip of land carved out between the mangroves and the everglades: far from today’s glittering metropolis, Deering was building his holiday home on the frontier.
Today, the relationship between Vizcaya and the city has been inverted. Where once it was a shining beacon of modernity, with the city’s first elevator, cinema, and primitive air conditioning, now it stands as Miami’s only link to the pre-twentieth century world. The transition has been seamless: for above Vizcaya has always managed to emphasise its total uniqueness. If you ever find yourself in Miami, you must visit Vizcaya. It is a treasure trove of surprises and moments of beauty, most of which I have not discussed here so that they can surprise you too (the garden in particular blew me away).