Monday, December 11, 2006

Weekend FT: Lifestyle, Jorge Perez on design

December 9, 2006

'I have always had a love of design'
By Julie Earle-Levine

Jorge Perez, 61, is a Miami-based property developer, architecture enthusiast and art collector. He is chairman of The Related Group, a $13bn company that is the largest multi-family builder in the US. It has already built 55,000 units in Miami and has plans to build another 15,000 in markets including south Florida and Atlanta.

As someone who was born in Argentina to Cuban-exiled parents and who relocated to Colombia following Castro's rise to power in Cuba (in 1959), what are your earliest memories of a family home?
Because of Castro we moved a lot, so the first house I can remember was in Argentina when I was eight or nine years old. It was an older, two-storey, English-type, brick house on a lot of land in a very pretty neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. There was a library, a very tall room filled completely with books. My mother had a very good book collection. When we were in Cuba, I would go to my grandparents' house in Guantánamo Bay (not the American side, the Cuban side). It was an old Spanish house. You couldn't tell anything from the front and then on the inside it had a fountain in the middle and all the rooms going around. In exile in Colombia we lived in a beautiful apartment in Bogotá. Furniture for my parents was always secondary to the books, great limited edition collections. There were always books, even when they lost everything.

How many homes do you own?
Three: our home, Villa Cristina, a Venetian-style three-storey home in Coconut Grove, Miami, on a waterfront parcel that once belonged to aviation tycoon Howard Hughes; a condo designed by Philippe Stark in Palm Beach; and a home in Utah.

Villa Cristina looks like an art gallery. How important is art to your home aesthetic?
I could not live in a house that did not have art. When I look at it every day it is a wonderful feeling. In Miami, it is all Latin American art inside and out. I have a sculpture garden I walk in every day. In Palm Beach every wall is filled with art. I have Chuck Close; he is like a chess master who knows the 700th move. Even if I have no wall space, I am always buying. I have hundreds of pieces in storage and then I also put art in my buildings and in my office.

Who are your favourite artists and why?
I have a wonderful collection of works by Wifredo Lam, one of the great Cuban painters. I particularly like his early period but also have pieces throughout his Afro-Cuban period. The Colombian artist Fernando Botero is one of the greatest artists ever. I have many of his early paintings and several bronze sculptures. The Mexican artist Diego Rivera is incredible. I love his work. Jose Bedia, the Cuban artist who uses African tribalism in his art, is amazing and a good friend. Right now I am concentrating on young artists. I love Art Basel because it electrifies Miami. It gives me the chance to meet collectors from all over the world and to reconnect with my non-Miami friends in the art world. All our galleries and museums put their best foot forward.

How involved were you in the design aspect of Villa Cristina?
I was single at the time and put a lot of energy into it. To get the stone we needed I bought a quarry. I used French and English designers but I have always had a love of design and know the things I want in my life. I was in a classical mood, my "Ralph Lauren" mood. I went to Paris to buy antiques, to London for silver and Persian rugs, to California for Rachel Ashwell's super-comfortable couches. I have many antiques, from Mexico and India, and very good oriental rugs.

What is your favourite room at Villa Cristina?
My library. I love this room: the deep leather seats, the quiet and art books. It is conducive to work.

You just spent some time repairing your home after hurricane Katrina. Was there much damage?
Yes. We lived at the Ritz Carlton Coconut Grove for months. The water had broken through all the villa's windows and destroyed carpets. We all worked through the night moving art to safety.

Do you spend much time at the Palm Beach apartment?
In winter we go every weekend. It is a completely different mood to Villa Cristina. It is all Philippe Starck, very funky, very American, all black and white. He says it is the only private residence he has designed other than his own and the president of France's.

Which designers and architects do you favour?
I think I have great ability to capture well done design. I'm not a designer, neither am I an architect, but I get very, very involved in the physical designs of buildings. I hired Philippe Starck to work on my Icon project at South Beach. He is brilliant. I said: "You have to design my Palm Beach apartment, too, and he did. More than anything, I want Santiago Calatrava to do a building for me - he is an artist more than anything - or to get Frank Gehry to do a building.

You have a master's degree in urban planning and started out working on affordable housing projects in Florida before graduating to building luxury condominiums in the 1990s. Were these first buildings
good design?

I refurbished homes for low-income seniors in Miami's Little Havana and Homstead neighbourhoods, then started developing two-storey apartments and suburban homes. I thought each of them was the Taj Mahal. I look today and think: "Oh my God, did I do that?" I can't compare to what I'm doing now, I've grown up in my design
standard and have larger budgets. Those buildings might not be
the best architecturally but they acted like catalysts to change in
the city. The City Place project is not the best design but it
changed the city of West Palm Beach into an urban city and increased values. One Miami is definitely not the best project but it is a good project for the young and provided a catalyst for downtown Miami's revival.

In Florida, some people call you "the king of condos?" How do you feel about that title?
I have always loved cities. I feel great looking at buildings in Paris, New York, in Barcelona, the Maldives, Miami, wherever. It doesn't have to be high-rise architecture; it just needs to be well done. Architecture is just art in buildings.