Tropical and Modern

Architect Ralph Choeff blends the best of both

2 Ponce Davis Residence, Coral GablesIf you were on a tour of impressive celebrity homes and interesting hotels in Miami Beach, you would see many designed by architect Ralph Choeff. The founding partner of Choeff Levy Fischman Architecture & Design is also widely credited with the current Tropical Modernism design wave that’s taking over Di Lido Island—nearly 20 homes so far.

But the transformation of ultra-luxury neighborhoods is nothing new for the Miami-based architect. Creating modern masterpieces in the most sought-after neighborhoods in Miami Beach, Choeff has designed homes for such celebrities as Cher, Matt Damon, Lil Wayne, Barry Gibb, Eddie Irvine and Alex Rodriguez. The second home he built for Rodriguez, the former New York Yankees standout, appeared on the cover of Architectural Digest in June.

You’ll also see his work in the whimsically modern designs of hotels such as The Mondrian South Beach and The Angler’s on Miami Beach.

Born in Havana and raised in Brooklyn, Choeff realized he wanted to be an architect when he was in high school. After graduating from the Pratt Institute in 1978, he moved to Miami for the warm weather and has lived here ever since.

South Florida is a natural fit for Tropical Modern architecture.

“You see it in the subtropical climates of Florida and Southern California,” Choeff says. “In Florida, it takes many of the same principles of Mid-Century Modern architecture, like promoting light, an open floor plan, and modern materials such as concrete, stucco and glass. We warm up that design by using board-formed concrete and wood, and sometimes even brick.

“But the real centerpiece of the home is its surroundings—we use as much glass as possible to blur the lines between the inside and the outside. Here you have wide vistas of water, palm trees and greenscapes, made possible by using huge glass doors that, in some cases, span full walls of rooms. Inside, textures are used like colors against a white palette.”

Building such structures locally can be a challenge because of hurricane construction codes, he notes. Materials must be heavier, and foundations are built so that soil doesn’t shift and move beneath them. But building materials have come a long way, making Tropical Modernism possible in South Florida.

Casa Clara for Ahmad Khamsi photo by Robin Hill (c) HI RES (4)“As technology evolves, so does architecture,” Choeff says. “In the past, you would have never been able to get glass doors as big and wide as you want them to be. Now we can build that way with impact-resistant glass. We also have the benefit of glass being more noise-resistant, in addition to being weather insulated. As time goes on and materials keep improving, you will see many changes in materials. Thatched roofs will go away completely.”

The next challenge for architects is building in an era of global warming, which Choeff says will require homes to be built high above flood elevation.

“So how do we take this style of Tropical Modernism and translate it for a global warming environment?” he asks, noting that many are already considering the options.

Some might consider Choeff especially equipped to face any challenge, considering he works with celebrities. But he insists his clients haven’t been high-maintenance.

“I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had clients who were very interested in the details of the design of their homes—like Alex and Matt—and often they know what they want, but their egos never got in the way,” Choeff says. “They trusted me.”

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