PHOTOGRAPHY BY: ZOLTAN PREPSZENT / PRODUCED BY: DAISY OLIVERA IN COLLABORATION WITH CARLOS BETANCOURT AND ALBERTO LATORRE /
When the need arose to find a space in which to live, work and also be able to create art, artist Carlos Betancourt and architect Alberto Latorre set out from their South Beach high-rise on a determined, yet exhaustive hunt that took them to more than 40 Miami properties. Just when discouragement and frustration were setting in, they arrived at a quaint oasis that seemed preserved in time: The Village of El Portal, one of South Florida’s most historic neighborhoods. Not one to dismiss this as a coincidence, Betancourt insists it was meant to be. “About 20 years ago, I was lost driving around Miami and found myself in a magical neighborhood that I thought would be great to live in,” he says, “I remember because the area had a monumental Ceiba tree, wild birds and the rare, old Florida, tropical lushness. I was never able to find the area again, until this house was listed.” Since a newly-constructed, oversized home was not on their wish list, the idea of a quirky, yet stylish, 1930s bungalow instantly appealed to them, explains Betancourt. With the surprise of a classic pool and terrace that would provide ample space for private, outdoor entertaining, it was, says Latorre with a laugh, “a done deal.”
In El Portal, you won’t see luxury towers. Instead, prime examples of original Miami architecture abound, from Spanish and Mediterranean Revival to Mission style and Mid-Century Modern. Peacocks and native wildlife roam the narrow, meandering roads that were carved into the land around the massive trees by pioneers close to a century ago. It was home to one of a dozen Tequesta Indian villages that existed within Miami-Dade County and includes an ancient, tribal burial ground — the first archeological site in South Florida to receive historic designation. The landscape and history resonated with Latorre as well. It was reminiscent of the El Yunque National Rain Forest in Puerto Rico. “We had an immediate, primal reaction when we saw the neighborhood,” says Latorre, who was born there to Puerto Rican and Ecuadoran-Chinese parents, “I grew up around Taino Indian artifacts and Aztec and Mayan pottery collections that were my father’s. Being near this archeological site felt natural.”
Betancourt, also born in Puerto Rico, was raised by Cuban parents who emigrated there, then moved to Miami when he was 14. A deep connection to the island that shaped his childhood is evident in his artwork, which explores issues of beauty, nature and memory. His inspiration is partially rooted in family photo albums that his mother created. “At times,” he confides, “it was pretty much the only thing we had left as we moved often. I am also intrigued by the memory imbued in objects and the attachment and nostalgia that they may evoke because of this symbiotic relationship.” Being a fan of history also influences his work, which is in important public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, the McNay Art Museum in Texas, the Palm Springs Art Museum and the New Orleans Art Museum, among others. His work has also been included in multiple solo and group exhibitions, as well as art fairs such as Art Basel and Arco.
Latorre, also versed in visual arts, is a University of Miami School of Architecture graduate. He specializes in design and management of residential, commercial, institutional, parks and recreation projects as well as interior and furniture design. Latorre is Betancourt’s studio director and has collaborated with the artist on a variety of art installations, from site specific artworks for the exceptional contemporary artwork collection of Celebrity Cruises, to Miami International Airport, Zoo Miami and Miami-DadeCounty’s Animal Shelter; all commissions awarded by the Miami-Dade Art in Public Places Trust.
They were introduced 18 years ago by mutual friend Richard Blanco, the fifth presidential inaugural poet of the United States (who also participated in the ceremony marking the formal reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba in August). With many longtime friends like Blanco, they entertain often as a respite from their intense, creative schedule and the frequent travel for work and inspiration. All the more reason this home needed to be the ideal sanctuary in which to stop, unwind and recharge.
The renovation was a significant collaboration between the two, outlined by Latorre’s analytical, problem-solving mind. “I had to invent new storage everywhere I could,” he says. “When I designed the furniture it was to create flow and continuation and give the appearance of more room. I tapered them and gave them angles to fool the eye.” Both are very hands on and have solid knowledge of construction. Shortly after buying the home five years ago, they dove in to add sophisticated elegance and function to the humble gem, which, in the style of the 1930s, was a warren of dark, claustrophobic rooms. A previous owner added a large master bedroom and bath to the existing two bedroom, one bath home and demolished some walls, but Latorre took it further. He reconfigured the kitchen, expanding it into the dining area, adding a breakfast bar and pushing it out into the side yard, doubling its size to add a pantry and laundry room. The two smaller bedrooms serve as a studio and office and the former pass-through holds library shelves.
An outdoor deck and lounge, which Betancourt and Latorre built themselves in the front yard, extended the entertainment area and cocktails are usually served there under swaying palm trees. “Because of how we entertain there had to be an easy flow from the moment guests come in,” explains Latorre. The exterior was just as important as the interior. Surrounded by century-old, massive oaks, different layers of vegetation were added, with ferns at ground level, then bushes and tall hedges. “Not manicured, we wanted that wild, natural feeling,” he emphasizes. A variety of palms, Kapoks and Gumbo Limbo trees were mixed in along the perimeter of the property, along with Ficus, Papyrus, Bamboo and Banana trees to border the pool.
The front gate, which was designed and painted by Latorre, foreshadows the radiating stripes of the pool terrace. It’s flanked by hedges punctuated with flowers chosen for their fragrance, which Latorre describes as “aromatherapy for our guests.” Jasmine and ylang-ylang perfume the night air, while gardenias enhance the day. Others flowers were planted not just for their beauty and color, but to attract butterflies and humming birds. There’s also an herb garden, which is a must for Latorre. Adds Betancourt, “we celebrate life with food and dancing and Albert is extremely talented in the kitchen. We are grateful to have traveled extensively, so we usually serve a fusion of Latin and world flavors, especially Mediterranean.”
Central to their entertaining is the pièce de résistance, which at first glance seems relatively simple. “They had to be multi-purpose,” Latorre explains, pointing out the angled, sleek, white tables in the dining room. “They had to work for three different functions. End-to-end they’re for dinner parties. We use one as our everyday dining table and the other drops down to coffee table height. But they’re also our drafting tables. The tops can be set at an angle and storage underneath holds supplies.”
The dining room buffet is topped with gleaming, white quartz as are the kitchen counters and living room cabinets, which reflect light and expand the space visually. The fireplace mantel is also angled and deceptively-shallow wall shelves add dimension without bulk. They were carried into the kitchen and other rooms as an ever-evolving gallery. Crisp, white walls were de rigueur since Betancourt’s colorful art, as well as other artists’ work they collect, is displayed throughout. The built-in sofas are covered in a nubby linen and the streamlined bases provide even more storage. “Elements I’ve used are informed by neo-futuristic architects of the 1950s, Eero Saarinen and Morris Lapidus,” explains Latorre. “Their architecture was joyful and optimistic.” Polished black floors add depth and sophistication. “The glossy, dark floors in the house bring to mind the shimmering surface of ponds and rain,” he says.
On the pool terrace, an unconventional, or some would say, outrageous, design decision was put into play. Latorre wanted a smooth flow to the exterior, so black matte paint was chosen for the wood deck surrounding the pool, the small bridge, the pavers and benches. River rocks the color of charcoal were added for texture. “It allows for the transition so the colors of nature stand out, since the greenery is so strong,” he states. The showstopper, unveiled during the Miami Beach Art Basel Studio Visit program, was the next phase; the black and white explosion of radiating stripes surrounding the pool. The way the light penetrated throughout the house provided inspiration says Latorre. “I was also inspired by the explosions of the Re-Collections series,” he says of Betancourt’s work. “It’s also an evolution of what happens at the front gate.” To achieve the pattern on the pool deck, the center point of the pool was marked off with a string and the two DIYers drew lines with chalk and long pieces of wood, then painted the entire design themselves. “That controlled the geometry, but there’s a studied randomness, since some lines are wider than others,” says Latorre.
“Carlos and I also built the bridge across the pool in time for his mom Teresita’s 70th birthday costume party. It was built as a photo-opp for her!” That is one of many legendary fêtes the two are known for. Says Betancourt, “her party was Fellini-inspired, mixed with a Celia Cruz Cuban theme. An event loaded with syncretism; it was a very memorable affair! Dancing is endemic to most cultures and playing dress up is also very liberating and ritualistic. Music is a powerful engine to creating memories and I like that.” The idyllic setting is everything they imagined and is still a compelling work in progress. “The house itself and life events guided many of our design decisions,” states Latorre. As Betancourt adds, “we are very fortunate to be a team, as we are inspired by similar interests and our work ethic is the same. When we collaborate, it is effortless, and we both dedicate long hours for creativity and work. Yet we are both aware of the importance of being independent in many ways, especially creatively, and that allows for projects to evolve organically and successfully. Albert is an immeasurable source of talent and I am extremely fortunate, as it is a relationship full of joy and celebration.”
PHOTOGRAPHY AND AERIAL DRONE PHOTO BY: ZOLTAN PREPSZENT
PRODUCED BY: DAISY OLIVERA IN COLLABORATION WITH CARLOS BETANCOURT AND ALBERTO LATORRE