Unhappy Landings

On a Tuesday-morning drive to Miami International Airport, Cesar Trasobares is rolling up the ramp from Le Jeune Road as he begins to describe the terrain around him. "What you have to imagine is a progression from light to dark to light," he says. "Here we're going through a dark, cool tunnel of trees, very tropical. And then, suddenly, when we come out of the tunnel we're on a ribbon of road undulating past water, water all around, like in the Keys. It's bright and sunny, and you can see where you're headed. And then, entering the terminal area, we go into darkness again, under the roadway, and we're at the edge of the central park, a habitat of gardens, tall trees, and flowers, with waterfalls and shafts of sunlight cascading from the upper level."

He sighs. "This is an extension of South Florida consciousness," he says, "and there is no other airport like it in the world."

Of course what Trasobares is actually seeing through the car window is nothing like what he has described. The reality is that most people driving into Miami International Airport can feel their anxiety level rising faster than the bar tab at the Iraqi Airways departure lounge. Assaulted by directional signs, dazed and confused by fly-overs and overpasses, befuddled by scattered outcroppings of foliage, harassed from behind or cut off in front by other motorists also fighting for their lives and a clue about where to turn, only a hot-wired tension junkie could find this drive enjoyable. And as for time to appreciate the public artwork - over there, see, that double-winged silver doohickey partially hidden in the hollow below an entrance ramp - LOOK OUT!

"It was so frustrating," says Trasobares, who for four and a half years was executive director of Dade County's Art in Public Places. "Yet it was a success, too. A project on this scale was unprecedented, an intervention of artists at the airport that would have redefined the meaning of aesthetics, not in beautifying, but in actually having artwork complement the functioning of a facility, and become an extension of the mind of the traveler.

"It didn't happen. But by no means do I see this as a failed attempt."
After three years and more than a quarter of a million dollars, what remains of the most ambitious attempt in recent U.S. history to wed art and function in a public facility amounts to some fluorescent lights over several airport crosswalks, two banks of television sets in concourses C and E, and a hangarful of regrets. Yet there was a moment when everyone thought it would work. Instead of an incoherent hodgepodge of ramps and parking garages, look-alike concourses and shops selling alligator ashtrays, MIA could be an enjoyable experience, almost like a theme park, a destination in itself. There would be waterfalls, and gardens, and a central park lush with palms and cypress trees where a short-term parking garage now stands, and, inside the terminal, aquariums full of fish, an aviary of colorful birds, a rich, lively, particularly South Florida milieu of tropical mood and atmosphere and ambiance.

MIA would be an airport in which a visitor would never feel lost, confused, or befuddled. Even newcomers would know precisely where they were, and how to proceed to where they wanted to be. People would feel comfortable, at ease, so relaxed even while waiting for the flight to Indianapolis, for example, there would be no inclination to ponder the wind-shear factor or the very real chance that their luggage was en route to Hartford.

The person who first conceived the possibility of this bold, new airport was Robert Irwin, whom many consider to be among the most creative and brilliant artists at work today. In 1969 NASA hired him to study habitability for long-term space flight. He's had one-man shows at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. An early oil painting just changed hands for $250,000. And in 1984 he was honored with a $264,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. He once spent eight months in the desert, without speaking, alone with nothing but his thoughts. He spent three years visiting and thinking about Miami, talking a lot. But he wonders now if anyone listened.

These days Irwin is not interested in art as most of us know it - seascapes and sculptures of twisted steel, or chocolate-covered bodies writhing in tortured performance. Although his works are found in major museums around the world, he hasn't painted or sculpted anything in years. No, Irwin is into possibility, and in MIA he saw the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to radically alter our collective notions of function and beauty, and to explore, in his words, "the potential of art, to have an airport that worked as an airport but was not just about flying. It was about Miami, and about perceptions of it, and Miamians' perceptions of themselves."

Ironically, the man who was going to serve as Irwin's partner in carrying out this vision was Richard Judy, a short, gray-haired bulldog of an airport director whose art for twenty years was making MIA work. Decisive, driven, as practical as Irwin is theoretical, Dick Judy was a public employee who operated with a certainty that he need answer to no one or nothing other than his own sound judgment. The airport was his personal fiefdom, and in a world ruled by bureaucrats, he not only got away with a feisty, up-yours executive style, but by the accounts of his nominal superiors and peers alike, ran a highly profitable, $500-million-per-year business as well. Under Judy's reign, MIA, which was built piecemeal during the Forties and Fifties, ranked second in the U.S. in both the number of international flights and cargo handled, a facility so pressed to keep up with the constantly escalating demands of passengers and freight, and so continuously being expanded, that it was said to be the only construction project in the country with its own airport.

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