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Meet the Developer Who Turned a Prime Stretch of Miami Beach Into a Botanical Wonderland

Jackie Cooperman

Luxury real estate tycoon Michael Shvo, dressed all in black and typing on his iPhone while simultaneously holding an in-person conversation, hardly seems given to gestures of quiet fantasy. Yet he’s the person who has filled a prime stretch of Miami Beach with sheep, cows and chicken-footed cabbage sculptures by the late French husband and wife artists Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne.

“Until October, this was an empty lot,” Shvo said recently, walking me through his 25,200 square foot outdoor exhibit. Flanking the construction site where Shvo is renovating the Raleigh Hotel, which he bought last February for $103 million, the Lalanne at Raleigh Gardens is a notably whimsical endeavor from a developer whose $6.2 billion real estate portfolio includes the upcoming Mandarin Oriental residences at 685 Fifth Avenue in New York and 9200 Wilshire in Beverly Hills.

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“I called landscape architectural firm Raymond Jungles, and in a month, we built this whole thing,” he says. The result: a sculpture-studded botanical wonderland of more than 100 species, including coconut palms, coccothrinax palms, traveler’s trees, seagrape, Tahitian gardenia, crinum lilies, philodendron and monstera deliciosa and alocasia. The lush tropical garden also includes a Lalanne frog perched in a lily pond.

Les Lalanne at The Raleigh Gardens. Photo courtesy of Douglas Friedman

Throughout, the bronze, stainless steel and epoxy stoneworks include topiary succulents toppling out of turtle planters, fish mounted on pedestals, an owl standing sentry, an enormous but gentle-faced gorilla and a flock of sheep. Gingko leaf-shaped tables and chairs, and a bench resembling a vertebral column offer sleek resting spots. Ensconced behind thick foliage, a bronze tendril-framed bed, its mattress upholstered in Shvo-approved, custom-made striped ticking, provides a hideaway where visitors often idle (and frequently post Instagram selfies).

The ersatz tropical art gallery may constitute a serene escape, but it also reflects Shvo’s intense real estate ambition and savvy art marketing. Set to reopen in 2023, Shvo’s project at the Raleigh Hotel, an iconic Art Deco monument, includes adjacent properties the Richmond and South Seas hotels, as well as what he promises to be a formidable, 200-foot residential tower, though he’s still keeping details confidential.

Photo by Jackie Cooperman

Lalanne works are enjoying record prices; last October, Sotheby’s sold $53 million in a sale of the late Lalannes’ personal collection. For his garden exhibit, Shvo convinced his fellow collectors Jane Holzer (best known as Andy Warhol’s erstwhile muse) and gallerists Paul Kasmin, Ben Brown and Jean-Gabriel Mitterand to lend their pieces. Architect Peter Marino, a longtime Shvo collaborator, designed the exhibit, which also includes his own Lalanne sculptures. It’s a return Lalanne collaboration for Shvo and Marino, who staged a 2013 installation of 25 sheep in Manhattan’s Getty Oil building, which Shvo bought for $23.5 million.

The exhibit marks a tender tribute to Shvo’s long friendship with the artists. Shvo calls Claude Lalanne’s visit to his first Lalanne exhibit, the 2013 show at Manhattan’s Getty building, one of his most cherished memories. “The first thing she said when she saw the exhibition was ‘I wish François was here to see this.’ It was moving to have the honor of bringing their work to a public space and have over 1.5 million people visit and enjoy it,” he says.

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Shvo’s latest installation honors Claude Lalanne, who died last April. “I had a growing desire to pay tribute to her,” he says. “It’s comforting knowing that if she was with us, she would be very happy.”

Les Lalanne at the Raleigh Gardens, 1775 Collins Avenue, is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Tuesdays, through February 29.

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