The Fort family business, Arquitectonica, is iconic on Miami’s many skyline. The firm designed the American Airlines Arena, the Federal Courthouse, the Atlantis building on Brickell (with the palm tree and red spiral staircase in its center opening), the South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center and now Brickell City Centre. But they’re also reshaping a lesser-known building — the Engle building in Coconut Grove.
Laurinda Spear and her husband Bernardo Fort-Brescia, who is Peruvian, founded their architecture business in the late 1970s. Since then, the business has grown to a global presence with offices in New York, Los Angeles and seven international cities.
Their new Coconut Grove development will house Panther Coffee, Harry’s Pizzeria and Buro, the shared workspace. It’s a departure from the grandiose, landscape-altering projects that Arquitectonica is known for, and the Forts say it represents a more personal and local side of the family businesses.
This venture is a way for the family business to give back and have an impact on the daily life of their neighborhood and neighbors, a unique opportunity that allows the next generation of the Fort family to contribute to their local community.
Marisa Fort and her brother Raymond Fort are both Ivy League graduates with master’s degrees in architecture and are currently interning to help manage the new Grove project. Ray works directly with new tenants, and Marisa is working more behind the scenes to ensure that the spaces fit the tenants needs and finalizing the contracts.
The Forts are firmly rooted in Coconut Grove. Spear is a brilliant and fierce matriarch. A graduate of the Everglades School for girls, her two daughters and five sons all attended Ransom Everglades School as well. The family chose Coconut Grove as home, and all four adult children who live in Miami still make their homes in the neighborhood.
Spear recalls earlier days before the construction of the Coconut Grove malls Cocowalk and Mayfair, when the retail options such as grocery stores and other small businesses served the daily needs of neighborhood residents. “Now, people mainly go out of the Grove to run their errands, and to meet their needs and wants,” explains eldest daughter Marisa. “But, with the absence of public transportation, it becomes less and less desirable to leave the Grove.”
When Bernardo Fort-Brescia found that the Engle building was for sale, he moved quickly to form Main Highway LLC, the company that purchased the building, and it soon became an informal family project. Even the brothers who don’t work in development came together to brainstorm about businesses that would revive and refresh the Grove’s neighborhood feel.
“We wanted businesses that would integrate into the community,” Marisa explained. “And also wanted to create a specialty block, where each is an expert in their field, and we got that with Buro, Harry’s, Panther Coffee and the Clyde Butcher gallery.” The choices demonstrate the family’s commitment to preserve and honor local roots, as well as its aim to foster new collaboration and innovation in Coconut Grove.
Sustainability and environmentally-friendly design is a core part of Arquitectonica’s modus operandi. With this new development, renovations were minimal, and there was no plan to knock down the existing structure and build something new.
“The greenest building is the one that already exists,” said Marisa. The four-storied development is typical architecture of the Grove, a style which drives the neighborhood’s charm and walkability, she said.
Ray had a slightly different version of his neighborhood than his mother’s. He came of age in the 1990s and 2000s, when the profile of Coconut Grove as a hotspot was at its peak. There would be cars back-to-back driving down the streets in a “see-and-be-seen” way, today more commonly associated with other neighborhoods like South Beach, he said.
To him, the construction of the malls brought popularity to the area, and part of the reason that there are fewer people nowadays has to do with the development of other parts of town like Wynwood, Brickell, and Edgewater. “The Grove still is and always was the most desirable area to live in,” he said. “It would be great for the area to be more autonomous and to sustain its residents, so that they’re not zipping around town to get things done.”
The family’s collective good taste and ability to work together is its secret to success, the siblings say. As the children of groundbreaking design professionals, both Marisa and Ray grew up honing an inherent sense of what works well in the world of building and design — and learning how to push boundaries ever so much.
“Growing up and working alongside my parents, I am exposed to their general thinking outside the box and try to listen as much as possible and learn,” she said. “They are always insightful, ahead of the curve and forward-thinking.”
With the Engle building project’s emphasis on preservation, sustainability, and neighborhood-building, it appears the next generation of Arquitectonica is committed to carrying on the family legacy.