We Built This City

"To step from the critical domain to the curatorial takes some courage," writes former Miami Herald architecture critic Beth Dunlop in the catalogue for Art + Architecture = Miami, now on view at the Center of Contemporary Art (COCA) in North Miami. "An exhibition tests abstract ideas by examining them in three dimensions. It's one thing to lay down a blanket rule, another to prove it with images and objects, public sculpture, and works of architecture."
"Art + Architecture = Miami" goes a long way toward justifying Dunlop's trepidation about the critic as curator (she still contributes occasional freelance articles to the Herald, and has undertaken other writing projects). Her informative catalogue text convincingly offers a chronological introduction to the city's cosmopolitan coming of age via the development of regional architecture and urban public art. But as the curator of this chaotic show, she demonstrates no such vision.

The exhibition seeks to document the invention of modern Miami by a succession of architects and artists, who, during this century, have shared common views of the city as, variously, a tropical playground, a postmodern metropolis, and, most recently, a Pan-American capital. But Dunlop's ambitious proposal is too broad to be properly explored within the confines of COCA's small preview gallery. "Art + Architecture = Miami" includes 83 works Adrawings, architectural renderings, scale models, photographs, and design objects A representing both existing and proposed architectural and public art projects in the Miami area. According to COCA's registrar, Dunlop originally chose more than 200 pieces for the show. But even with the scaled-down version, the museum's space feels overhung. Drawings cover walls from top to bottom, making the gallery look more like a nineteenth-century painting salon than an exhibition examining contemporary urban design. Given the cramped quarters, only a few of the projects receive satisfactory treatment; too many are mere fragments of large-scale endeavors. Limiting their representation to one drawing or a lone model has made it difficult, if not impossible, to understand their inherent complexities. Consequently the show comes off as a hodgepodge of intriguing items, each of which somehow relates to the idea of art and architecture in Miami. For the most part, however, Dunlop leaves it to the viewer to figure out how.

Models and drawings of readily identifiable Miami icons A Richard Haas's trompe l'oeil mural at the Fontainebleau Hotel, Christo's huge Surrounded Islands project on Biscayne Bay, Edward Ruscha's downtown public library mural Words Without Thoughts Never to Heaven Go, and, particularly, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's outdoor sculpture Dropped Bowl With Scattered Slices and Peels A occupy considerable space. But the bulk of the show concentrates on more recent projects. These include stellar achievements in urban design: Michele Oka Doner's Miami International Airport installation -- Walk on the Beach, now under construction in the airport's Concourse A, and represented here by a large, exquisite drawing of the site and samples of the bronze inlays incorporated in the work; the reconstruction of the Brickell Bridge; South Beach lifeguard stands designed by various artists; and Gary Moore's patterned African textile and bronze medallion walkway for the Ninth Street pedestrian mall in Overtown. Also scattered throughout the show: Steven Brooke's ethereal photographs of the casino at Villa Vizcaya, the Century Hotel, and the entrance to Coral Gables; an aluminum art deco door; a handpainted table from the Haitian restaurant Tap Tap; and mosaic patio furniture by Miami Beach artist Carlos Alves.

On a wall near the entrance to the gallery is a large wooden sign advertising alligator wrestling, illustrated with a naive painting of one of the reptilian competitors. While certainly a fantastic piece of kitschy folk art, the painting is undated and the accompanying wall label makes no reference to where it once hung. This piece, and a wonderfully decadent burlesque show sign (also undated and unidentified), do not fit with the high-minded art and architecture collaborations that dominate this show. But they do serve as examples of its biggest problem: a lack of context. And while credits for individual architects abound, in most cases the wall labels fail to give sufficient information to provide an understanding of the projects these drawings and models represent. (Neither a slide carousel nor a video monitor, presumably loaded with images that could provide needed context, were operational the day I visited.)

For example, an intricate drawing of a Firestone sign (for what? who knows?), identified simply as Firestone by Richard Hubaclar, hangs next to Domes of Miami, William Caldwell's abstract pencil drawing on paper. Are these elements of proposals? Imaginary landscapes? On the same wall are four drawings based on Jody Pinto's proposed urban garden project for the airport, The Park of Journeys. In this case, curator Dunlop succeeds in giving a succinct vision of the nature of the project and what it would look like at different stages of development. But then there are the obvious questions, ones that kept occurring to me as I walked through the gallery: Has this project been completed? Will it be built at all? The show left me wondering.

Viewers also can scratch their heads and ponder works such as a richly colored pastel rendition of a Spanish colonial-style public plaza, identified as Proposal for Little Guatemala and credited to a team of architects headed by Roberto M. Behar. The display neglects to disclose that this project was part of plan for a migrant-workers community in Florida City, submitted for a New South Dade Planning charrette sponsored by We Will Rebuild, after Hurricane Andrew. A fascinating site-specific plan, it supports architectural diversity by creating an autonomous, culturally significant community for the Guatemalan workers. This information is extremely relevant within the context of South Florida, and the fact that Behar has been lauded in national architectural circles for his proposed immigrant housing A but has not found funding for it here A might say something about the politics of architecture in this region. The inclusion of such details would make for a clearer understanding of the nature of the project.

Another project by Behar, this one in collaboration with artist Rosario Marquardt, points to the exhibition's potential. Their red M, an Art in Public Places project for the Riverwalk Metromover station, constitutes one of the few pieces in the show displayed in an integral way, including a pastel drawing of what it will look like on-site, a finished scale model, and a sketchbook study; additionally, the accompanying label provides an explanation of the project's concept and physical details.

To witness the sheer amount of innovative architecture and public art that now exists -- or might exist -- in Miami is exciting, and residents should feel a sort of cultural pride in the fact that there are enough important projects represented at the COCA to fill several exhibitions. This particular one would have worked better if Dunlop had not tried to cover so much ground. In the end, "Art + Architecture" amounts to little more than a gallery graze, an unguided tour of the urban landscape.

Art news you can use:
* Oscar Thomas painted the commanding Overtown mural on the wall of the Lyric Theater, recently unveiled in honor of Black History Month. The mural features realistic portraits of prominent community members A Black Archives founder Dorothy Fields; D.A. Dorsey, Miami's first black millionaire A as well as Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billie Holiday, and a scene showing black settlers working on the railroad.

* The historic wall and ceiling murals inside the Miami Beach post office on Washington Avenue are being restored by Rustin Levenson Painting Conversation Studio, a New York-based firm. The paintings, created by Charles Hardman in 1940, depict historical scenes of South Florida, topped by a celestial dome inside the cupola.

* New World School of the Arts professors Susan Banks and Jack Lembeck have created Landmind, a laboratory for student-initiated environmental public art projects in downtown Miami. Their first project was a mural, designed by student Miguel Luciano, on an abandoned building on NE Third Avenue; an Earth Day mural and an environmental project at Bayside are scheduled for the future. For information about sponsoring or participating in Landmind's activities, call Banks or Lembeck at 237-3593.

* Pat Ross Marx, Art in Public Places' Education and Community Outreach Director, gives tours of the program's Metromover projects to school and community groups. She can be reached at 375-5362.


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