Unhappy Landings

Trasobares, along with APP's trust and the advisory committee, began to wrestle with the problem of how to bring artists into the shaping of public spaces so that art was less an add-on than an integral element of the planning. The airport became their test case. "We needed someone who was capable of directing the artistic intervention," says Trasobares. "Someone with a visionary quality. And there was just one person for the job."

Few outside the art world know of Robert Irwin, and even fewer really know him. In Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, his book about Irwin's life, author Lawrence Weschler says of his subject: "He is perception's gadfly, annoyingly prodding the taken-for-granted, relentlessly combining the ordinary and uncovering its hidden wonders." Now 62 years old, Irwin tired long ago of the usual art world scene, and for the past twenty years he has concentrated on what Weschler calls "his lifethemes - the explication of presence, an awareness of perception...." Since 1970, Irwin says, he has submitted plans in 25 public art competitions, and won 24 of them. But only one of those projects has ever been built - a plaza in front of the police station in Pasadena, California. In Miami's airport Irwin saw the chance to serve as master planner for what could be the largest collaborative effort between the arts and a public facility ever attempted. "It was the perfect situation for a case study," says Irwin, "because although the invitation was from the arts people and not the airport, an airport represented the most complex, challenging situation."

As master planner, Irwin set about involving himself in everything, from the landscaping at the airport entrance to the way the seats were arranged in the waiting areas at the far ends of the concourses. He also began to write a sui generis planning guide and a history of Miami and South Florida that attempted to explain its origins and take in its myth and metaphor. That 58-page document, much of which reads like a free-verse poem, discusses dialectical tension, compares empiricism to rationalism, and defines the role of the arts at the airport as "the replacement of indifference with attention and...supplementing quantity with quality."

The possibilities for making historic changes at the airport were great, Irwin saw, in part because the money was there. In 1986 Dade County voters approved a $247 million bond issue for expansion of MIA, and 1.5 percent of that was earmarked for APP. But even more telling, Irwin wrote in his guide to the airport project, was that Judy "ran a kingdom," a "hybrid" airport that reflected "Mr. Judy's management/information/decision making process - a working pastiche, accomplished by a constant pattern of practical gerrymandering." And as with all good rulers, Judy made decisions quickly and freely. Irwin realized that the key to moving beyond the planning stage was to win the director's favor. So he set about wooing Dick Judy.

Judy says he liked Irwin and his ideas right away. "I was immediately receptive," he says. He does not mean that he bought every proposal Irwin made; not at all. Rather, he subscribed to the idea that Irwin's job was to dream, and that Judy would then decide what was feasible and practical.

Other artists, meanwhile, were sent Irwin's guidelines and Miami history, and were invited to contribute their own proposals for the project. Pioneering video artist Nam June Paik proposed installing 150 television monitors in the shape of a wing. Alexis Smith and R.M. Fischer submitted sketches of murals featuring maps and airplanes, and a circular bar that revolved around a huge globe. They also thought about how to redesign uniforms of employees, and suggested a new carpet to replace the existing floor covering, the color of which is unaffectionately described as "Miami mud." And Richard Fleischner, in an effort to give a unique Miami atmosphere to MIA, proposed an ambitious redesign that included floor-to-ceiling aquariums, corridors that wind through free-flight aviaries, and foliage so thick as to be unmistakably tropical.

Irwin envisioned the airport as an episodic experience that began when a visitor approached the entrance by car and continued in a progressive fashion right up to the boarding gates. "I wanted to make clear where you were and where you were going, and a sense of progression about how to get there," he says. "The airport is chaotic. You start out on Le Jeune Road, and you're trying to find out where the hell you are, with roads crossing over roads, and there's a piece of art there, which you have no time to look at, you have to make critical decisions, and you have this impacted parking area, and then an impacted terminal and then the concourses, and you needed a major gesture to relieve that."

The major gesture Irwin decided upon was to remove a parking garage in the center of the airport sprawl and restore the land to its natural, primeval state: a swamp. The plan required digging twenty feet down into the oolite bedrock, suspending bridges over the marshland, and ripping out most of the existing plumbing and wiring. Driving into MIA would be like arriving at Busch Gardens. "It was obvious that wouldn't work," says Vivian Rodriguez. "It was very idealized, and not really feasible."

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