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.
Irwin describes Judy as "an entrepreneur and a builder in a civil servant's job," and eventually that contradiction did him in. After the 1988 county election, even Judy's widely acknowledged competence as a manager couldn't save him from the age of accountability ushered in by a new Metro-Dade Commission, which wanted answers to questions about some land deals and about his relationship with an arms dealer known as the "Merchant of Death." When the questions kept coming, Judy said the hell with it. Abandoning his dream of an airport as beautiful as it was profitable, he wrote out his resignation, took one last walk through the automatic doors marked Exit Only, and never looked back.
But for a couple of years he and Irwin came together like yin and yang to form a perfect circle of intent. With Irwin as his guru, Judy listened and learned the principle of "Art = Enrichment," and came to believe, to share a sense of the vision. As airport director he had made decisons, he'd made money, and he'd made MIA work. Now, he saw, he could make history. "I knew we were on the verge of something that would sweep the world," Judy says now. "It was a new concept of presenting culture, much like the ancient Greeks."
But it wasn't to be. Today Judy is in Coconut Grove, running his own consulting business, trying mightily to keep regrets from exploding into bitterness. Trasobares is in Little Havana, making his own art. And Irwin is back in California, where from his harborview home in San Diego he is working on two 55-foot towers for Chicago's Loop; figuring out how to move 100 aspen trees to the entrance of the 1992 Winter Olympics site in Albertville, France; and trying to improve the flow patterns of tourists who visit Frank Lloyd Wright's house, Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania. But he often thinks of Miami. "I don't know what the hell happened, really," he muses. "Ambitious, yes; there was a moment...."
But that moment seems to have passed, and with it MIA's chance for transcendence. Art in Public Places' current director, Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, says there is a possibility that the Irwin plan could be implemented, at least in some scaled-down version. But Irwin doubts that. He recalls one of his last presentations to airport staffers, a time when he was discussing how the short-term parking garage could be knocked down and the land flooded in order to make a subtropical swamp in the proposed central park. Before he could finish, Irwin says, he was interrupted by Frederick Elder, who at the time was Judy's assistant in charge of parking. Says Irwin: "He stopped me in what I was doing and said, `Look, I don't give a shit. It's all bullshit to me. If I was in charge, I'd just concrete the thing over.'"
Now Elder is in charge. He was named aviation director after Judy's departure.
The airport project began in 1986, after APP had been reorganized and had set about trying to recover from the "Flying Bacon Affair" four years earlier. In 1982 APP paid $285,000 for a work by James Rosenquist, a 47-foot painting titled Star Thief, an impressionistic view of outer space that was to hang in Eastern Airlines' Concourse B. But the work was never hung. Frank Borman, Eastern's chairman, had been to outer space as an Apollo astronaut, and he was pretty sure he had never seen any strips of raw meat from the backside of a pig wafting through the ether. Borman may not have known art, but he knew space and he knew what he didn't like. He didn't like Star Thief.
The spatter of controversy from "Flying Bacon" may have revealed Borman as an art critic, but it also demonstrated a major shortcoming of public art programs. Founded by county ordinance in 1973, the Art in Public Places Program was to receive 1.5 percent of the construction budget of county projects. As with many other such programs across the U.S., APP's earliest expenditures seemed to go for "plop art," typically works of free-form steel sculpture or rock groupings dropped in front of rail stations and office buildings like so many ponderous afterthoughts.
In 1982 APP's mission was recast. A fifteen-member Art in Public Places Trust was created to oversee the program, and a Professional Advisory Committee of working artists was established to recommend acquisitions. In 1985 Cesar Trasobares was hired as director, and during his tenure, the program flourished. Works by many prominent artists, including Claes Oldenburg and Rockne Krebs, were commissioned and installed, and in 1989 Dade County's APP was the only such program included in Milan's Triannale, an international celebration of the arts.
Still, many people considered public art to be useless clutter. Frank Borman wasn't the only taxpayer ticked off by "Flying Bacon." Although he liked the Rosenquist painting, Judy, too, realized that scattering artworks as decorative doodads on public property was not the way to win the hearts and minds of the populous. "My experience was that APP was about hanging pictures," Judy says. "The airport wasn't the place for public art. It just interfered with the operational aspects. I just told APP I wasn't going to throw money to put up pictures."
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."
Irwin almost agreed. Many of his ideas, along with the plans of the other artists, were borderline preposterous, and he knew the concept would be difficult for the public to grasp. In the fall of 1987, in fact, just months after he had agreed to take on the project, Irwin confessed as much to an audience at Florida International University. "The people of Miami are going to have to want it," he said, "and even then it will be a slow evolutionary change - one that may not even happen in my lifetime."
But Irwin was going to try to make it work. "My idea was to open up the area so that arriving visitors could see where they were headed," he says. "We didn't need to throw it all away, just refine it."
Telling the story now, as he did recently over a spaghetti lunch at a sidewalk restaurant not far from his office, Richard Judy, 59, is careful not to seem too angry about the way he was treated by the County Commission, and especially Commissioner Joe Gersten. And he is also careful to give the credit for creativity to Irwin. But clearly Judy feels the airport, as well as much of the long-range thinking about its future, was his own. "Bob [Irwin] is more than an artist, you know," Judy says. "No one else in the country saw this approach," which, he adds, matched his own.
By mid-1988 the bond between Judy and Irwin had set to the point where Irwin was working with other artists to draw up plans with architects and planners. Specific proposals were made to Judy and the APP's advisory committee and the trust. And here things began to bog down. As Irwin tells it, "When Judy wanted to do something, it got done. He made decisions rapidly, and although quick decisions often masked bad decisions, it did become the way things were done. But the arts people made decisions at ten miles an hour, rather than at the 50 to 90 miles an hour that the airport worked. There was a cumbersome bureaucracy, and the board was nervous, cautious. It was obvious why they were having difficulty working together."
Irwin says it also seemed to him that Judy and Cesar Trasobares were unable to work together. "I'd come to Cesar with a deal, and he would need to sit down with Judy and work out the details, and afterwards nothing was in place," he explains. "They would get to arguing with each other. My feeling was that Cesar had old logs to saw. They could not sit in a room together and cooperate. So whatever I had worked out would get undone. It took a lot of energy just salving old wounds."
Finally, in an effort to make some progress, Irwin says he suggested to Judy that he slow down his speed of decision making. "And it came to the point where Judy was willing and he tried to change his methodology. But the arts people never changed. If anything, they slowed down even more."
Trasobares agrees that the process was clunky to the point of stagnation. "Bob's recommendations had to be heard by the Professional Advisory Committee, and then be approved by the Trust, and then we had to negotiate contracts through the county attorney's office," he says. "So what Judy and Bob discussed in two hours' conversation took months to bring about. It was frustrating."
Other artists also felt stymied. Alexis Smith says she submitted several proposals, and in meetings Judy greeted them enthusiastically. But when the artists' work was passed on to airport staffers for review, it came back "totally co-opted, changed, and [subjected] to some power trip," says Smith. After two years, she quit. "The biggest problem with the airport situation in general," she says, "was that there was no way to put forth an idea and see it through without having it bastardized by others with special interests."
Finally, to vent some of his frustration, Irwin got Judy's okay to install a demonstration project at MIA, what he calls "a freebie." Months earlier, the airport had paid $50,000 for a study about how to improve the lighting in the carbon monoxide-choked lower drive, where cars and buses idle while waiting to pick up arriving passengers. The atmosphere is so bad under there that Metro cops refused to work traffic-control duty. And while an engineering firm was eventually hired to change the lighting, Judy was unhappy with the results.
So Irwin took a look and, he says, "came up with an idea that was extremely simple." He lit the crosswalks with green fluorescent tubes that paralleled the white strips on the concrete, creating for motorists a brightly lighted area where pedestrians were easily seen. Moreover, the lighting gave to the roadway what he calls "a sense of motion, a pulse, that pulls [drivers] through space." Irwin also saved the airport money by using existing materials. Judy was happy.
But for other reasons, Judy wasn't happy for long. About the time the lighting project was finished, in the spring of 1989, the newly elected Metro Commission ordered a countywide audit of departmental books. Just how much money Judy spent at the airport - and just who received it - was of particular interest.
The audit was also welcomed by the trustees of APP, which had virtually no money in its bank account and - thanks to an oversight in its charter - no formal mechanism for collecting monies it was owed. The audit determined that APP was due some $5.8 million as its share of various county construction projects. The audit also confirmed that change orders to airport contracts let by Judy often exceeded their original bids. Those bids were the only sum on which the 1.5 percent APP share applied. And although Judy was never accused of any wrongdoing, the inspection of the books seemed to signal the director that it was time to go.
Judy's decision to leave was a thunderbolt, surprising almost everyone. Sure, he had been talking about retirement for a while. He had put in almost 30 years with the county. Before going to the airport, he had built much of Dade's road system. He worked night and day, weekends, too. His salary at the end was $100,000 per year, and he saved it. He was thinking about finding a hobby.
On the other hand, he wasn't really ready to retire. He had just been elected chairman of the Airport Operators Council International, a worldwide association of airport directors, and no one thought he was close to walking away from that. Besides, he had a lot invested in Irwin and the project to transform MIA.
But even Judy's long-time patron, Dade Mayor Steve Clark, couldn't deflect the questions about the way the airport was run. Commissioner Joe Gersten was especially insistent. What about this expenditure of $300,000 for a study about building a race track at Opa-locka Airport? Gersten asked. And what about this low-ball price from Sarkis Soghanalian, the so-called Merchant of Death, to ship a car from Europe for Judy's daughter while the arms dealer was negotiating a contract for an airport land lease?
No one in county government, bureaucrat or commissioner, had ever questioned Judy before. Judy couldn't believe it. "No private sector in its right mind would make a change when someone is making huge profits for the people," he says. Still, push turned to shove. And Judy refused to take it. It was that simple. He quit.
Judy's resignation stunned Irwin. "I never felt like I was a friend of his, but I liked him," says the artist. "I was something like a carbuncle that he had no time for. But he was pivotal. I appreciated his ability and his strength."
In October 1989 Irwin received more bad news. Frederick Elder, then- interim aviation director, sent APP an invoice for $430,000 to cover funds the airport had spent in connection with various studies and renovations related to art projects. Included in that figure was a $130,000 bill for steam cleaning the roadway and ceiling on the lower concourse in preparation for the installation of the lights. Irwin was incredulous. "If anything," he says, "they should have paid me."
APP's airport project coordinator, Mary Hoeveler, remembers the invoice as fateful, an omen of a bad end to come. "That was just one of many incidents," she says. "And it indicated that what Bob had accomplished with Judy - convincing him that art was central and not peripheral - Elder just didn't understand."
Craig Robins, treasurer of the APP Trust, refused to pay, contendng the lighting project, for one, stemmed from a private agreement between Irwin and Judy. "That was not an APP-authorized project," he says. "We really did not have anything to do with it." And he was not about to pay the bill.
"The arrival of that invoice signaled the end of the good intentions," says Cesar Trasobares. "It served to question my authority." The invoice, and Elder's attitude toward the airport project, weren't all that was bothering Trasobares, but they were significant. In January 1990, he announced his resignation as APP's executive director.
That same month, after being summoned to appear before a meeting of the APP Trust, Elder defiantly refused to back down. "I am not going to be nailed for sins of the past," he said.
After that, the airport project was on a glide path for crash and burn. While Elder denies dismissing Irwin's master plan as "bullshit," clearly the Irwin-Judy vision was doomed. (For Frederick Elder's comments, see the sidebar that accompanies this story.)
Irwin returned to Miami a couple of times. "I'd go to the airport on occasion for presentations to midlevel people who never showed up," he recalls. "Or maybe there'd be two people there. The meetings never came together. That tells me there was no clear interest or leadership on either side, from the airport or the arts people. Nobody did their homework. I was mystified.
"The idea of beginning again with Elder was insurmountable," Irwin adds. "We were dead in the water. It was just impossible."
For his work on the airport master plan, Irwin was paid a total of $300,000, including $75,000 for redesigning the central garage. Video artist Paik was paid $170,000 for his two installations, Wing on the third level of Concourse C, and the monitors spelling out "Miami" on the lower level of Concourse E. APP spent another $80,000 for consultants.
The money issues between APP and the airport remain unsettled. In addition to the $430,000 in disputed reimbursements, APP's director Vivian Rodriguez says the airport owes APP an additional $370,000 as its rightful percentage of construction projects. Elder is scheduled to attend the APP Trust meeting April 9 to discuss the money matters. Says Rodriguez: "There is room for negotiation."
Art in Public Places now has more than one million dollars in its airport account, says Rodriguez, as well as a firm resolve "to use Bob's master plan, and be guided by his philosophies" in future dealings with the airport. But it is not clear how much attention is being paid by anyone at the airport. Plans are now being drawn for the construction of concourses A and J. Richard Fleischner's plan to make Concourse A a subtropical jungle of fish and fowl is out; it, like most of the plans submitted by artists invited into the project by Irwin, was rejected by the APP's advisory committee as unfeasible and too costly.
Nonetheless, Rodriguez says that Elder has shown a willingness to include APP in some planning sessions, and that she expects artists will soon be invited to submit proposals for Concourse A. Antolin Carbonell, an airport architect who worked with Irwin on his master plan, says, "More important than any specific for a site, Irwin showed how a public agency and artists could have an impact on the development of public spaces."
Judy says he doubts that Elder understands Irwin's ideas, and charges his successor with reinventing the wheel with his own master plan. "Elder is bright enough," says Judy, "but he was running the parking garages. There is a lot to learn."
As for the Irwin plan: "If we had pulled it off, it would have been one of the most exciting things in the art world in years. We were taking art out of the museum and into everyday life. And we were getting it done."
Irwin, too, is wistful, wondering if he'll ever get so close again. "I'd love to have gotten the thing built; it is one of the best examples of what my thinking is," he says. "But it just wasn't to be. For the arts people to explain where the money went, we needed a little brick and mortar and we never got to that point. But it wasn't for naught. We got people thinking, stretched them in a way.
"If I dwelled on the projects that have gone down the drain, I'd be a basket case. This could have been the project I was searching for. I've done my homework, and if someone wants to do something like that in the future, I'm your man. I am the artist who can do something like that. And I took my advanced doctorate in that airport.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.