Castaway Cove kid helps lead the Tropical Modern movement in Miami


Architect Paul Fischman’s life has revolved between two wildly divergent cities that share a sub-tropical theme.

Born in Miami, he grew up in sleepy little Vero Beach in the 1980s and 1990s before returning to Miami in the early 2000s, arriving in time to participate in its dramatic emergence as a “world city” that is “redefining the American dream,” according to Forbes.

Fischman grew up dreaming – a lot like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life –  imagining the things he would design and build around the world when he broke free of small-town limits.

“I wanted to be an architect my whole life,” Fischman told Vero Beach 32963 during a two-hour conversation. “I absolutely love the true Mediterranean, Spanish Revival, Florida Vernacular, British West Indies and other historical Florida styles. Those traditional precedents are ingrained in my DNA.”

Fischman has achieved his dream and more, gaining a reputation as an innovative businessman and master of architectural implementation as well as design, according to clients and associates, becoming a significant player in the advent of Tropical Modernism from Panama to Dubai.

Tropical Modernism – a style that maintains the purity of classic modern architecture while infusing it with the intelligence and materials of traditional styles that evolved in hot climates around the world – is taking Miami and much of the planet’s sunbelt by storm.

“To say Paul has contributed [to the development and success of Tropical Modern architecture] is an understatement,” said Ralph Choeff, a leader in the Tropical Modern movement in South Florida and “founder of the famed architectural firm Choeff Levy Fischman. “He has gone above and beyond this style of architecture.”

Choeff Levy Fischman “has designed some of the most celebrated homes and hotels in Miami” including “a string of sparkling seaside jewels” for “celebrities and VIP’s including Cher, Matt Damon, Barry Gibb and Alex Rodriguez,” according to HomeWorldDesign and other publications. And Choeff attributes much of the firm’s success to Fischman.

“He’s a very talented designer. His presentations are first-rate, and he keeps his deadlines,” Choeff said. “He also has an extensive knowledge of construction. Put his design and construction knowledge together and there’s a winning combination. Paul is invaluable.”

The Financial Times recently called Miami “the most important city in America,” a dynamic urban harbinger sometimes compared to Shanghai for its emerging skyline and intense energy, but it was “known as a retirement community” back in the late 1970s when Fischman was born there, according to Choeff. 

“The tallest building in downtown was the old courthouse,” he said. “There was no traffic and nightlife was stagnant, as was building.”

Fischman’s father, longtime Vero Beach physician Dr. Charles Fischman, was a resident at the University of Miami medical center when Paul Fischman got his first blurry glimpse of Miami.

When the senior Fischman completed his medical training, he moved his family to Vero Beach, where he was one of the first physicians at  Doctor’s Clinic.

The family lived in a British West Indies house on the river in Castaway Cove, where childhood was sun drenched and sea soaked. 

“Between fishing, body boarding and surfing, my friends and I lived on our boats and wave runners and spent half our lives in the ocean,” said Fischman, who recalls piloting the family boat to St. Edwards School and talking too much in class. 

“Most decent architects are a little antsy, constantly coming up with ideas,” he said. “A dyslexic, hyperactive ‘future architect’ is not exactly a dream student to have in your classroom on a daily basis.”

Despite that, he attributes his success in college and career to the discipline and study habits instilled in him at St. Ed’s.

“After my parents, that was the most important influence. Mentors like Darby Gibbons, Bruce Wachter, and Dr. Richard Omerod laid the foundation for college, grad school and my career, teaching me how to study, prepare and manage my time,” he said.

The St. Ed’s skills paid off when he graduated and went to the University of Colorado for a degree in environmental design. “St. Ed’s taught me how to learn and University of Colorado taught me how to think and look at space differently.”

At Colorado, he gained skills in 3-D rendering before those skills were common and did well enough to get a scholarship to grad school at the University of Southern California. 

“I passed on the scholarship and got my master’s degree in architecture at the University of Miami because my parents told me I should go to grad school in the place where I wanted to work because my professors would be active there and it would be easier to get established. That was Miami and their advice turned out to be right.”

While still a grad student, Fischman began doing 3-D renderings for Choeff, an association that lasted for years while Fischman worked for a large Miami firm and then went into business for himself.

“About a quarter of my work when I had my firm was 3-D renderings for Ralph,” Fischman said.

The next step came when Choeff needed help managing the design and construction process on a project on Star Island, the exclusive Miami enclave where Ken Griffith has been buying up lots for a mega-estate since moving his $50-billion hedge fund Citadel to Miami in 2022.

That project went well, showcasing Fischman’s ability to precisely execute the fine details of a design despite the vagaries of contractors and construction.

Choeff invited Fischman to join his firm and before too long made him managing partner. 

“When Paul became a partner, he had my office running smoother and better than ever,” said Choeff. “He completely changed the way the firm does business. He made it more corporate while maintaining a studio feel to it.”

With their third partner, Raphael Levy, the men steadily built a thriving business and were well-positioned to ride the wave when Miami exploded during the pandemic, becoming a red-hot real estate and development market.

They stayed small – 13 architects in total – to maintain quality control, but had the reputation, connections and savvy to reap the business and architectural rewards when the superrich flooded in. 

Besides Griffth, who brought a legion of wealthy associates with him, Jeff Bezos, occasionally the world’s richest man, and Lionel Messi, considered by many the best professional soccer player in the history of the game, are other recent arrivals who have raised the profile Miami and Miami Beach. 

Choeff Levy Fischman has done projects from Dubai to Panama City but does the bulk of its work in Florida and the Bahamas, according to Fischman. The firm has opened a second office in Tampa.

“We have 60-some projects currently – 10-15 with contracts out there, 10-15 in design, 10-15 in construction and 20 or so in the phase where we are doing post-CO work – the clients are living there, but they want to add an elevator or other feature.”

Fischman and his partners cultivate long-term relationships with clients, which has helped them build “a high-quality, sustainable business with a backlog of projects,” according to Fischman. 

“Paul is very client oriented. He listens well and is proactive,” said retired banker Michael Carpenter, for whom Fischman designed a contemporary house on Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach. “He’s highly qualified technically and easy to work with and has become a friend.”

“He’s fun to work with,” adds Financier Robert Rothman, whose Tampa home was designed by Fischman. “I often joke with him that he is obsessive/compulsive, which can irritate others involved in the project, but can be a strength for an architect. He doesn’t compromise easily. He is committed to the integrity of the design and will go to great lengths to ensure the project meets the standards he believes in.”

“We are very blessed to finally be in this position, where we can pick the clients and projects we want and work a normal-hour week,” said Fischman.

“Architects usually don’t come into their own until their 50s and 60s, but Paul is ahead of the curve,” Choeff said. “He is coming onto his own now as a young man in his 40s. He’s blessed with great talent and common sense.”

The same is true in his personal life. He got married in 2020 and he and his wife – who works in international finance – have a one-year-old daughter. The family lives in Miami Beach, which Fischman extols as an architectural wonderland with hundreds of great Art Deco, Med-deco and modern buildings and a vital urban lifestyle that takes him back to an 8-month stay in Florence, Italy between college and grad school.

“I lived in a loft there and fell in love with the walkable urban lifestyle, going to the market daily for food and soaking up all the beautiful architecture and history.

“Miami Beach is more well-managed in terms of development than Miami and South Beach has a very European feel.

“I feel like I am in a new phase of my life, like I am on the back nine,” Fischman said. “I will be designing the rest of my life, but I may move more into design/build.”

Despite his career and family contentment, the Miami/Vero polarity continues. 

“I have started coming home to Vero more often,” said Fischman. “Although it’s just a couple hours North of Miami, Vero Beach may as well be in a different country.  I sought the big city as I progressed through my high school years but now, 25 years later, I find myself seeking the solace and peace of Vero Beach, where I come up multiple times a year to retreat and recharge. 

“Vero Beach allows me to reconnect with nature and enjoy a slower and more enjoyable pace of life. We used to stay with my parents when we visited but now that they’ve retired in the Davis Islands in Tampa, my wife and daughter and I have found the same peace staying in Quail Valley, which lends its own southern tropical charm, with a beautiful synthesis of successful architecture within the Old Riomar oak tree canopy.”

Fischman recently designed a spectacular tropical modern house for a prime lot in Vero’s Estate Section, which is currently for sale as plans and land, listed with the Fredrik Eklund team at Douglas Elliman. Eklund, a superstar broker and former star of Million Dollar Listings New York and Los Angeles, moved to Miami last year, part of the accelerating influx of money and celebrity.

Fischman designed the 21,000-square-foot, resort-like estate for Jupiter developer Nathan Saxs, who with partners has developed thousands of apartments, industrial projects, self-storage and strip centers nationwide.

Renderings of Villa Paradiso evoke a residential ideal as much as a specific structure, showing a beautiful, four-building compound in a style that somehow makes poured concrete roofs and cantilevered  sections appear light and airy, floating atop glass partitions.

“Paul is ethical, personable, non-egotistical, and enjoyable to work with,” said Saxs, who has known Fischman for six years and worked with him on a prior project. “He brings a long history of construction experience and thus can find ways of executing complicated designs in an efficient cost savings manner.”

Fischman is designing a second house in Vero that will break ground this year but declined to provide details due to a confidentiality agreement.

Asked about buildings in Vero he admires, Fischman said, “My favorite homes are situated in the New Urbanist Community of Windsor, many of them designed by my graduate professors and Dean at UM. This community demonstrates successful traditional architecture design incorporating many new and old town planning principles that we use in Tropical Modern design – preservation of green open spaces, pedestrian access to amenities, deep overhangs, expansive porches, and warm tropical tones. 

“The Ocean Grill and Driftwood Hotels are two other Vero Beach gems worth noting. These projects are a part of the historic Vero seascape. Multiple hurricanes later, these structures still stand proud – albeit requiring multiple restorations over the years – with a majority of the original architecture in place.”

Fischman said he can’t move back to Vero now for business reasons. “The kind of clients we have naturally find us in  Miami, but the CEO of Louis Vuitton isn’t going to find me in Vero Beach.”

But the pull of our little seaside town is strong and Fischman says he frequently thinks about returning here, completing another leg in the cycle.

“I could not think of a better place to raise a family and retire than Vero Beach, Florida,” he said. “I hope to end up back there sooner than later, as the business permits.”

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