It's the busiest place in South Florida, a $500-million-per-year business that every twelve months sees more than 26 million people come to call. But the roof leaks, some of the walls are collapsing, and the carpets are filthy. Even the man who runs Miami International Airport admits that in many respects, "It's a disgrace."
And does Frederick A. Elder, III, director of the Dade County Aviation Department, have time to ponder turning MIA into a piece of art? Hardly, he says. "I fully support art at the airport," says Elder, "and I'm for changing the whole nature of the airport. But I'm not necessarily in favor of the grandiose scheme of Bob Irwin."
When Rick Elder, a blunt-talking, 46-year-old former air force pilot who flew more than 300 combat missions in Vietnam, inherited MIA from long-time director Dick Judy in December 1989, he also became heir to a unique and expensive plan to transform the airport into a model of beauty and function. But artist Bob Irwin says that even before he assumed the post of director, Elder had dismissed the ambitious master plan as "bullshit."
Elder not only denies that allegation, but adds that it was he, not Irwin, who came up with the idea to replace the short-term parking garage with a central garden. "I had a buddy do a drawing, and I gave it to Dick Judy," says Elder. "But I'm sure they both would have a short memory on that.
"The fact is simply this: I want this to be the prettiest airport in the world. We are the number-two gateway in the nation, and I want people to interface with Florida. But at the same time, we've got to balance everything we're trying to do here. The plant life, the artistic touches - I'm all for that. But we can't spend millions of dollars on bringing plants into doorways when in terminals I've got buckets keeping floors dry from holes in the roof.
"Walk into the lobby of Concourse E," Elder continues. "That's where, up until last summer, international passengers into this community arrived, and it's an absolute disgrace. And look at the cargo area. I've got cargo buildings that are literally falling down."
Under former director Dick Judy, charges Elder, "this place was allowed to go into disrepair."
Elder was named to succeed Judy at the end of 1989. He joined the Dade County Aviation Department ten years earlier, serving under Judy as deputy aviation director for governmental affairs and chief of land-side operations.
Elder insists he has not ruled out Irwin's master plan because he doesn't like art. Au contraire. In designing Concourse A, for example, "one of the things I've asked for, in concept design, is that we go ahead and design it and all future concourses so they are accommodating to art pieces." As an example of what he prefers, Elder cites San Francisco International Airport, where, he says, along the concourses are "art pieces behind windows, in lighted display areas. I would love to see something like that [in Miami]. We have a lot of history, a lot of cultures, museum-level artwork."
And as for Irwin's charge that the current director is not interested in art or the master plan, Elder responds this way: "Bob Irwin has never come into this building again, for whatever reason. That's his problem, not mine. We're not going to turn this airport into an art piece at the expense of efficiency.
"I think it would be appropriate, if he thinks we should continue on that level, [that] he would be pursuing it. But I'm not surprised he hasn't. I knew the man."
Elder says he respects Irwin's ideas: "He's a great artist." But, he adds, Irwin is impractical. Take Irwin's design for new tollbooths for the parking garages, for instance. "We were going to put the booths between two open lake areas, lagoons, connected by water under road, with a steel grate at tollbooths. Did you ever hit your brakes on a steel grate? We would have had a thousand accidents out there," says the director.
"I would love for Mr. Irwin to sit down and explain to me how his project would take away confusion out here. I sat through his briefings. I think it's beautiful. But I don't think it takes away the confusion. It would make it worse.