After dark, along the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach, there's plenty to occupy your gaze at ground level. Vibrant storefronts, fountains and alfresco dining attract a pageant of short skirts, tight tees and leashed lap dogs.

But a glowing structure rising skyward in a concrete exclamation point at one end of the promenade lures your eyes up, away from the ground-level spectacle. At the top, people circulate above it all. Actually, they're above a parking building, albeit one with an impressive architectural pedigree and a rock-star name - 1111 - to match.

It's 1111 Lincoln Road, and if sexy cars are worshiped in South Beach, this is their cathedral.

Miami and Miami Beach have become known for their eye-candy parking decks, which is a statement that seems patently oxymoronic. But a handful of stylish structures seem to be northern garages gone wild - shedding their anemic concrete blah while on spring break.


That makes them part of the South Florida sightseeing experience - something to add to the itinerary of beaches, Cuban coffee, pastelitos, art deco and Wynwood Walls.

"One of the things about Miami Beach, even in the deco era, is, because it's a resort town, architects were able to experiment," says Steve Pynes, a partner with Bermello Ajamil & Partners in Miami. "Maybe they feel freer to do something different."

The standout garages are to typical structures as Maseratis are to minivans.

The cities' penchant for "parkitecture" emerged in 1996 with the Ballet Valet Parking Garage in Miami Beach. It's nicknamed the "Chia Garage" for the lush greenery it sports, Chia Pet-style. Those familiar with the late Tony Goldman - the visionary behind Miami's Wynwood Arts District - will find it no surprise that the Chia was his pet project.

Goldman collaborated with Miami-based Arquitectonica on the design when South Beach was in the early stages of its comeback. At the base of the Ballet Valet, vintage art deco storefronts that had fallen into disrepair were restored.

The Pennsylvania Avenue Garage, built in 2011 in Miami Beach. Photo / Craig Hall, New World Symphony.
The Pennsylvania Avenue Garage, built in 2011 in Miami Beach. Photo / Craig Hall, New World Symphony.

The plants, described as a vertical green zone, flourished and required recent taming, leaving the garage looking bald at the moment, says Saul Frances, Miami Beach parking director. When the plants are filled out, they create a wave of flora, emulating the Atlantic surf one block away.

Sounding more museum curator than parking director, Frances says Ballet Valet was "way ahead of its time".

"Historically, parking garages have been viewed as these concrete monsters making areas not as aesthetically pleasing. But our city takes a lot of pride in its architecture."

Frances adds a tour-guide tip about Ballet Valet: "It's in the flight path to Miami International, and you can see the garage."

Although the city reaps frequent compliments on Ballet Valet, it was the arrival of 1111 Lincoln Road that brought renewed appreciation. Miami Beach's two other stylish garages "are ancillary to the 1111," Frances says. Folks gravitate to that one and become aware of the other two. When they see them, it's 'Wow, they're kind of jewels themselves.' "

In 2010, 1111 Lincoln Road debuted to international acclaim. Parking-structure lists - yes, that's a thing - consistently rank it among the top 10 globally. describes 1111 as "quite possibly the world's most beautiful parking garage".

Each of the facades on Miami's City View garage was drawn up by a different designer. The garage was built in 2015. Photo / Robin Hill,
Each of the facades on Miami's City View garage was drawn up by a different designer. The garage was built in 2015. Photo / Robin Hill,

Herzog & de Meuron, a Switzerland-based architectural firm, designed 1111 for developer Robert Wennett. In addition to accommodating a mere 300 cars, the landmark houses an event space, a residential penthouse for Wennett, retail and a restaurant.

"Lincoln Road has altered what people think a garage should be," says Miami architect Lourdes Solera, a principal with MC Harry Associates. "It's a fantastic-looking building."

Solera points out what she calls the "humongous" vertical space between floors, which sacrifices capacity for aesthetics.

"The whole building is a conversation piece," she says.

Part of that conversation happens on Level 5, where the Alchemist boutique occupies a glass box perched at the edge. "People come looking for the garage and find us," says Amy Bear, Alchemist operations director. "They wonder how we got here. And they love that you can see Fisher Island from here and the bay and the ocean.

"They've never seen a shop in a parking garage, let alone one that sells exclusive, one-of-a-kind pieces.

"We're a little bit mysterious," Bear says. "People stumble upon us."

Among those who discover Alchemist are visitors on architectural tours. "There's a lot of architectural interest because of who the architect was," Bear says.

Of course, a city's full deck of preening parking should have a Frank Gehry design in the mix. And it does. Miami Beach and the New World Symphony (NWS) commissioned Los Angeles-based Gehry Partners to design the Pennsylvania Avenue Garage for the NWS Orchestral Academy. It was built in 2011.

Don't expect a version of Gehry's famed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, however. The NWS garage, as it's commonly called, is restrained. It's wrapped in a metal mesh that's illuminated at night by an LED light show that's certainly more attractive than hundreds of outward-facing car grilles.

The light display is best viewed from 17th Street, Frances says, which makes it visible to convention centre visitors.

Among the area's four standout parking buildings, one, City View, is on the Miami side of Biscayne Bay. City View is notable for having an individual look on each of its four sides, Pynes says. "Different designers were selected to do different facades.

"The southwest corner is gold with metal panels, where portions are bent back," he says. "The gold catches the light at sunset."

The structure, built in 2015, was part of the redevelopment of Miami's Design District. It's effective, Pynes says, because "it's visible from the elevated [Interstate 95] highway. It's almost a billboard saying, 'There's something here.' "

A glimpse of City View makes you want to instruct your Uber driver to take the nearest offramp.

City View's multiple-personality look was created by design firms Leong Leong and IwamotoScott. The result meets a high bar set by such swanky neighbours as Fendi, Cartier, Harry Winston and Hermès, among others. As the Design District website boasts: "The chicest place to shop in Miami now includes the coolest place to park."

Another avant-garage is coming to the Design District late next year. This one, the Museum Garage, will offer six diverse facades; renderings indicate it will be colorful and playful - another postcard-worthy house of cars.

The Ballet Valet opened in Miami Beach in 1996. Photo / Dan Forer, Courtesy of Arquitectonica.
The Ballet Valet opened in Miami Beach in 1996. Photo / Dan Forer, Courtesy of Arquitectonica.

Terence Riley, whose firm, K/R Architects, is curating and helping design the Museum Garage, says Miami is becoming more like a European destination.

"Yes, you have the beaches and the ocean," he says. "But now, there's somewhere to go, performances to see - and parking structures fit into the design story."

Stylish garages embody an "if you build it, they will come," aspect, which is the story of Miami Beach. As Riley told me, in a city where everyone drives, the parking garage is the foyer.

Carl Fisher, the entrepreneurial car man behind the first transcontinental highway, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Dixie Highway, helped woo motorists to Miami Beach. He worked to develop the land for Lincoln Road, where businesses included Cadillac and Packard auto dealerships.

The continuing car orientation was clear to me when I took the Miami Design Preservation League's art deco tour. The pastel beauties, many built when autos were becoming commonplace, overlook a perpetual parade of cars.

Miami Beach, a barrier island just 11km long and one mile wide, has a population of 85,000 that swells to 300,000 on any given day. And where to put visitors' cars poses a creative challenge, which is why the city's selection of yet another garage architect is about to get underway.

Good architects design within local context. And in Miami and Miami Beach, that context includes beautiful people and plentiful cars - often, exotic ones. For the humans, there are hip hotels. And for those automotive gems: some very nice jewel boxes.