One of the best bits of design I saw in Miami, when I was there last month for Design Miami and Art Basel Miami Beach, was well off the gallery-party-hotel circuit. I'd been to Simpson Park Hammock, a nearly 100-year-old city park known as Jungle Park in the teens and 20s, last year for a kind of unveiling. Miami architect Chad Oppenheim and Swiss landscape designer Enzo Enea were proudly showing off their plan for what Simpson Park Hammock could be. I was intrigued, but at that time there were merely plans. This year I met up with Oppenheim and Enea to tour what they, and a host of others, have managed to achieve.
SImpson Park Hammock is not far from downtown Miami at the intersection of SW 15th Road and S Miami Avenue and a hammock, as I learned, is a kind of sub-tropical microclimate, in this case a small swath of hardwood forest that is what you'd have found on this very spot hundreds of years before the city was founded. Through the pro bono work of Oppenheim, Enea and the public-private partnership between the city (this was a pet project of the very popular and outgoing Mayor Manny Diaz), private donors, and big time financial contributors like the car company Audi, the once derelict park which was overrun with non-native species has been restored to its former glory.
It was murderously hot as Oppenheim, Enea, park naturalist Juan Fernandez, and I stood at the pavilion that Oppenheim designed as the "portal between nature and architecture," as he put it. The wooden platform, which doubles as a kind of orchid garden, certainly has that feel. As you enter, the sensation of leaving the urban world behind is palpable, yet Oppenheim's breezy design straddles both worlds, reminding one that even this encounter with nature is, in many ways, manmade. Taking a last glance back out to the city, the wooden portal frames the view nicely, but a large tree between the street and the park keeps the landscape front and center.
"The architecture is subservient to nature," said Oppenheim. "Unlike in the greater city of Miami, here we're letting nature control the built environment. In ancient times all their buildings had to react to was the natural world, and right now the focus of my work is letting nature be the star."
In addition to the foliage, animals have also taken to the park. Birds are in abundance, though Fernandez told me that "lizards, snakes and big, big spiders are thriving." Passing under the pathwide webs of several massive arachnids made that plain, and Oppenheim, who is quite tall, did his share of ducking beneath their low-hanging webs. The architect claimed that the goal was to "let nature lead us," and he and Enea certainly were game to follow.