The Miami Marine Stadium, built in 1963, was for almost three decades the epicenter of one of the most spectacular motorized sports—powerboat racing. This grand stadium created a setting for drivers akin to Ben Hur on nitro, in a structure by the Cuban architect Hilario Candela. It was also used for concerts, boxing matches, and other sporting events before falling into disuse after Hurricane Andrew, in 1992. Now the roar of motors and hysterical crowds has given way to silence. The smooth surface originally conceived of as the aquatic equivalent of asphalt has slowly transformed into a ghostly sea, as peaceful as a lake.
In the center of this “lake” today is a structure that, at first sight—dare I say, on the surface—seems roundly out of place in this context: a chalet. The chalet, with its snow-covered roof, floats in the middle of the watery stage. It is a chalet composed not of wooden logs and a shingle roof in the traditional style, but of an inflatable structure. The closer we get, the more we realize that it resembles a synthetic image of a chalet (its faux-wood surface is designed to look like it has actual texture). From far away, the illusion of the picturesque chalet is still plausible. Viewed up close, however, it looks more like a video game.
Although the presence of a snow-covered chalet in Miami’s tropical waters is initially incongruous—even more so when we realize it is an inflatable reproduction of a chalet—does its artificiality really come as such a surprise? A brief glance at the history of the chalet reveals that its architecture is of uncertain origin, modest dimension, and rustic character. It escaped the alpine meadows in the mid-18th century for valley floors, lakeshores, and urban gardens (1). The 19th century witnessed the rise of this type of construction: “Miniaturized or oversized, ordinary or eccentric, the chalet managed to impose itself as a set form of a particular kind of home. Naturalist writers saw it as the architectural expression of bourgeois individualism imprisoned by its own conformity…. [The chalet] relies on the idea that the individual makes his own happiness: to be at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time.” (2) And as Georges Sand has reminded us, “Switzerland can be replicated anywhere it wished to be.” (3)
In the mid-19th century, the popularity of the mobile chalet (i.e., one that can be grafted onto any landscape) as an architectural concept suddenly spiked with the invention of the band saw, in 1842, and during the second phase of industrialization, starting in 1848. The chalet’s mobility, nomadism, and practicality made it a key ingredient of cosmopolitan architecture, inspiring one journalist at the time to write: “This habitation is complete, it offers all the necessary commodities and seduces us with its cachet. Can’t you see that mobile homes are desirable in case of fire, epidemic, flood, and war? Quickly, you move your home away from the disaster and you can … say: I am bringing everything with me. Who knows? Mister Waaser [the mobile chalet’s inventor] who only saw … economic progress might also have brought us social progress: cosmopolitanism. The person who sets his tent wherever he wishes in the four corners of the world claims no nationality, and is instead a citizen of the world…. I foresee and welcome with open arms this peaceful revolution.”
Chalets became increasingly popular at the end of the 19th century. By that time, the term chalet was employed interchangeably with villa, cabin, bungalow, and even lodge. Today, we see chalets in seaside resorts in Egypt and Kuwait, and in ski resorts in Lebanon. In North America, the chalet can describe any building that houses tourist infrastructures, such as ski resorts, country cottages, or vacation getaways.