A home-refuge on the water

A house on pillars in Miami Beach, Florida, with sophisticated, high-quality interior design, a creative work of architecture capable of coping with the challenges of the surrounding natural habitat


Project Rene Gonzalez Architects
Photos Michael Stavaridis / courtesy of RGA – Article Antonella Boisi


The Indians of the Seminole tribe in Florida raised their Chickee huts on stilts in the early 1800s, to protect themselves from the damp ground and parasites, allowing air to circulate in a healthful way under the construction. Later, in the 1930s, a cluster of defensively raised houses, Stiltsville, was built on the water of Biscayne Bay, Miami.

We learned all this from Rene Gonzalez, the Miami-based designer who has reinterpreted these sources of inspiration (along with the fundamental paradigms of the Prairie Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright or the Five Points of Architecture of Le Corbusier) to create the design of his Prairie Avenue Residence. This is the first of a series of houses built on stilts in Miami Beach, Florida to specifically address the threat of the rising sea level, which in recent times has become a vivid concern due to the impact of global warming.

“The city is actively responding to this situation,” he explains, “raising streets and investing resources estimated in the area of 500 million dollars, to construct pumping stations and dikes with which to deal with this potential emergency. As for private property, the new regulations indicate that buildings should be designed on a higher level with respect to the topography.”

So this residential proposal, while fully inserted in the typological current of luxury residential design, demonstrates that projects can be creatively competitive, at the service of necessary improvement of contemporary living conditions in relation to the changing environment.

“Like the native mangrove forests found in tropical and subtropical tidal zones, that protect the coastline from erosion, surges and hurricanes,” Gonzalez continues, “the house touches the terrain with great lightness. Raised on concrete pillars, it has gardens, parking and storage areas at ground level, and provides a safe haven for the inhabitants during hurricanes and flooding.”

All the living spaces are raised over a sculptural garden of tropical vegetation that provides drainage and becomes vital organic material, perceptible in a mutable way depending on the levels of the water below. Access is provided by a retracting staircase in bronze-finish brass, which can be mechanically raised when necessary and placed in a hollow volume at the center of the house.

At the top of this motorized naval-style stairway, custom-made with great expertise by the Italian company Marzorati Ronchetti – like the internal fixed staircase, also in bronze-finished brass – the first volume that meets the eye is the central one of the long swimming pool, which through careful axial symmetry further underlines the delicate connection between the terrain and the residential spaces.

Around the pool there are islands for the living area, bedrooms and guestrooms, in an uninterrupted sequence with an open layout, emphasized by the use of large glazed portions and full-height sliding doors. The arrangement produces further connections with the natural habitat and its basic elements: water, vegetation and light. Built as a vacation home for a client who spends most of the year in a colder climate, the architecture formulates a dynamic relationship on multiple levels with the landscape, down to the smallest details.

“The sloping perimeter walls in concrete, with custom openings for the glass surfaces,” the designer says, “also seem to float to allow light to enter the internal spaces in a soft, shaded way. Likewise, the planes of the floor and ceiling, treated as independent parts, convey the sensation of being inside a suspended succession of wide, extended horizontal floating lines, parallel to each other and oriented towards the sky. Up to the roof terrace, organized as an extreme viewing point of the natural and constructed landscape.”

And the design furnishings? Very sophisticated, avant-garde pieces, unique items selected from all over the world, like the works of art that accompany theme, chosen in collaboration with the client. In this context, these creations are like actors in a theater piece. In other words: architecture that creates beauty and solves problems.