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Culture

A New Sculpture Garden in Miami Built to Withstand Heat and Floods

Mixed media artist Typoe Gran talks about creating sculptures to excite the imagination on Miami’s Underline.

The Typoe Sculpture Garden.
Heatmap Illustration/Typoe Gran, Getty Images

The Underline in Miami is a 10-mile trail that will, over the next few years, repurpose 120 acres of unused land into an urban mobility corridor for pedestrians, dogs, bikers, and skateboarders. The route runs under the Metrorail rapid transit tracks from the financial district at the northernmost end all the way south to Dadeland. It’s New York’s Highline at ground level.

For now, only the half-mile-long Phase 1 is complete; the 2-plus-mile Phase 2 will be finished by this spring, and the remaining leg by 2026. Phase 1 begins at a green space called Brickell Backyard near the Miami River in the Brickell District and includes a sculpture garden designed by Miami-based mixed-media artist Typoe Gran.

I caught up with Gran last month at the Art Basel fair in Miami, where he was celebrating the launch of a permanent chandelier-inspired installation at the Rimowa store in Miami’s Design District. I am inspired by the joy and playfulness in his work, which is rare in climate design.

We talked about his inspiration for the Sculpture Garden and the unique challenges of designing a permanent, durable play park that can also withstand extreme weather conditions in Miami. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your approach to design at Primary, your gallery in Miami?

My partners, Cristina Gonzalez and Books Bischof, and I started Primary in 2007, and it began as a public art project in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. I have always been fascinated by Friedrich Fröbel who created kindergarten and children’s building blocks. My work often involves creating larger-than-life sculptures and murals that remind us of the importance of play and experimentation.

How did you get connected to the Underline Sculpture Garden project?

The Underline project was really cool because I knew the curator and there was a great team with such an accumulation of knowledge working on how to build it and create beautiful areas for people to come together.

Our pitch was to build a space where people can play, connect, grow, and be inspired to use their imagination. The most important thing was igniting their imagination. I arrived to the Underline team with an already-funded idea and got it greenlit from the beginning.

What was your approach to designing the Sculpture Garden?

I looked at multiple sites along the beginning of the path, and the area I chose was the densest in terms of people walking around, which was exciting to me. I wanted a spot where there would be people. It was also located at a position where the train line split a gentrified area with luxury brands and a super mall on one side, with a rougher area on the other side. I liked being the connector of these areas.

It was also the saddest-looking area! Dead plants, nothing there, with just a pathway through it. It was underneath the Metrorail, so it would offer protection from sun — you could still play and it wouldn’t be blistering hot, and you’d be shielded from rain. This was a beautiful start because the area was underutilized and I had to figure out how to make it a destination.

Tell me about your design approach to the location.

What we designed is not officially a playground but a sculpture garden, with benches and big sculptures you can look at that are playful and reference adolescent activity.

The material we used is important because of the environment. The sun is hot. There is a small amount of salt water in the air, and that affects metals and paints on metals — we didn’t want to deal with rust, plus metal gets hot. So, we thought it would be cool to make fiberglass sculptures — what we make boats out of. Fiberglass offers a lighter load and is simple to install. Also, it looks clean and shiny and doesn’t get too hot, so kids can touch and play on it and it’s safe — there are no sharp edges and no one gets hurt. We sloped the concrete so when it rains, the water runs into the plants. It’s just a slight tilt and not noticeable to the naked eye.

Your Habitable score for the Sculpture Park shows extreme flood and heat risk. Were you aware of this when you built the park? What decisions did you have to make?

I have never seen it underwater. That zone is still slightly higher than the street, and again, we tilted the path so that the water slides off into the planter areas.

[It was] tricky because there is not a full-time irrigation system throughout the Underline and we had to be specific about choosing plants that could last without watering. We used temporary sprinklers to get the plants established and then rely on native plants that would thrive without a lot of watering.

How does the park perform? Has it had to withstand a hurricane yet?

This sculpture garden has been alive only for a year, so it hasn’t lived through a hurricane yet. But I’ve gone there a lot and it’s cool to see people eating lunch, taking work breaks and taking pictures.

Early on, I would’ve thought it would be a place for kids to play. But I’ll see an elderly man taking selfies with the sculptures. It makes me happy that their imagination is going and my sculptures and park are in conversation with people.

Is there anything you would’ve done differently?

It all turned out, luckily, exactly how I had hoped. And of course, now I have ideas for more parks. Next, I want to do a really big one! I’m in talks with multiple cities and countries to figure out where the next park will be.

What are your three top takeaways for park designers?

1. Before I even thought about what I was going to do, I had to think about the landscape. It was partial shade, heat, salt water, flooding. I had to take all of that into consideration.The fiberglass sculptures had to be engineered and rated for hurricanes and engineered with metal plates so that we can unbolt from a side hatch and easily move [them], but [also] will never move during a storm — the last thing we want is a sculpture flying into someone’s house. We had to have an engineer design for all possible weather conditions.

2. Design for the world we are living in, not the one we wish we were living in. You have to consider the human element: Are people going to try to sleep in my park? Or is it a place where everyone tries to skate on it?

3. Graffiti! We had to put a special clear coat on all the surfaces so the graffiti could be taken off. You have to expand your mind to consider every type of human being who is going to be in the park and accept it — whatever can happen might. You have to prepare for the worst. People are going to write, sleep and skate all over it, so design for it!

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Ann Marie Gardner profile image

Ann Marie Gardner

Ann Marie Gardner is an award-winning editor and entrepreneur. She writes about design and climate and just launched Habitable, a newsletter and tool to assess your home's risk from climate change. You can read it here: http://www.habitableliving.com/

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