Aqua Nova

Will a starry-eyed proposal for renovating Monument Island burn out before its time?

Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt keep having a kind of recurring hallucination. They're in a jet plane heading toward Miami Beach, on approach to Miami International Airport. They look out the window as the jet heads west over the rooftops of South Beach and then the brilliant blue water of Biscayne Bay. And what they see amazes them: a lush green island in the shape of a star. An eight-pointed star, which lies in the exact location, they realize, of Monument Island, about half a mile west of the dead end on Fourteenth Street, and a half-mile south of the Venetian Causeway. The concrete obelisk, erected on the island in 1921 to honor pioneer railroad mogul Henry Flagler, is still there but surrounded by a strangely landscaped jungle with walkways and huge sofas. Near the Flagler memorial is another monument, which they can't quite discern but which has something to do with Julia Tuttle, the charming lady who lured Henry to Miami by sending him orange blossoms in 1895 during an unusually brutal northern winter.

Behar and Marquardt are a husband-and-wife artistic duo with a proclivity for the surreal, so they are prone to such flights of fancy. After all, they come from Argentina, a land where a writer obsessed with inventing imaginary civilizations, Jorge Luis Borges, became a national hero. But these two are also quite serious about making their island vision come true. They go so far as to claim that the star already exists; it just needs to be "uncovered," so to speak. They even have a name for it: The Star of Miami. "We imagine that the star is already there," says Marquardt. "The only thing we have to do is to move the water away so the star will appear."

"Like unearthing the star, actually," Behar adds.

Some folks see how Monument Island went from 1922 
(top middle) to 1969 (bottom middle) and ask, why? 
Behar and Marquardt imagine it as it could be and ask, 
why not?
Photos Courtesy of Florida Photographic Collection
Some folks see how Monument Island went from 1922 (top middle) to 1969 (bottom middle) and ask, why? Behar and Marquardt imagine it as it could be and ask, why not?

Cynics and pragmatists may say the couple has made one too many trips through the looking glass. But in the past they've succeeded in bringing the trappings of their imaginary universe to the streets of Miami and elsewhere in the form of public art projects. In 1996 they built An M for Miami,a red 45-foot letter "M," next to a downtown Metromover station, with funding from Miami-Dade's Art in Public Places. In 2001 they constructed The Living Room, which is 42 feet tall and outdoors, thanks to two exterior walls of a Design District building owned by developer and art collector Craig Robins. Last year in Brussels, at the entrance of the Centre International pour la Ville, l'Architecture et le Paysage (the International Center for the City, Architecture and Landscape), they draped a rainbow spectrum of 40-foot plastic streamers from the roof of the brown brick building to the sidewalk and called it Mask. In a nearby courtyard, they added a more extensive plastic streamer installation, Plaza Esperanza (Hope Plaza).

The Star of Miami is by far the most ambitious public art project they have conceived. Indeed it does already exist, in the form of a series of drawings and paintings that they created about a decade ago. Though the series hasn't been publicly exhibited, architectural historian Vincent Scully of Yale University included renderings of The Star of Miami in his 1998 book, Between Two Towers: The Drawings of the School of Miami, along with the works of a host of other local architects, including Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jorge Hernandez, and Thomas Spain, to name a few. What distinguishes the Miami School, Scully notes, is a preference "to draw directly from nature" and to design buildings in a harmonious relation to their natural or urban landscape. That approach, he says, contrasts with another tendency at large today that favors huge, flamboyant structures, which architects like to call "object-buildings." These are generally conceived with little or no regard for the fabric of their surrounding environment, such as Cesar Pelli's Performing Arts Center or Arquitectonica's American Airlines Arena.

Scully, a youthful octogenarian whose metaphysical take on architecture has made him something of a spiritual leader for members of the Miami School, says the tradition of elevating architects' drawings to art began in Manhattan roughly twenty years ago. That was about the time, coincidentally, that Behar and Marquardt arrived in New York. "It started to come along really with postmodernism," Scully notes. "I remember the [Max] Protech Gallery in New York began to have shows of architects' drawings back in the Eighties, [architects] who did very beautiful drawings and paintings." Christo, the famous Bulgarian artist who in the Seventies began cloaking buildings, hillsides, and islands with vast sheets of colorful translucent plastic and other material, has financed his projects through the sales of drawings and renderings he creates during the planning stages.

In the parallel universe where the world's great architects seem to reside, it can take a generation or two before the historical impact of their works can be judged, according to Scully. When it comes to colossal public art projects, it could take that long before they even get built. For example, in 1979 Christo conceived of an ephemeral large-scale work for New York City's Central Park called The Gates. Now, 25 years later, he and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, are moving it from dream-state to reality. The work calls for the draping of huge orange curtainlike pieces of fabric from 7500 rectangular metal frames, which will be positioned about ten feet apart along the park's walkways, thereby forming long winding rows of orange fabric that will flap above pedestrians as they stroll through the gates. It's due to open in February 2005.

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