Aqua Nova

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.

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.

If The Gates is any gauge, then Behar and Marquardt, ages 49 and 51, could have a long wait. But they believe now is the time for the place the world knows as "Miami" to invent a unifying symbol with a "regional presence." And the perfect symbol, they maintain, is not the Freedom Tower, the Art Deco District, or Opium Garden nightclub, but an eight-point star. Why? Because it denotes the cardinal star used on maps, which contains the eight main compass points (north, northeast, east, southeast, etc.). In typical fashion, Behar and Marquardt have a couple of ways of perceiving a star. Just as an "M" is also an upside-down "W," a star not only points outward but also marks the place "where the North and the South actually meet, as part of the invention of Miami as that place where North and South actually meet," Behar asserts. "It's kind of offering a center for a city without one, in a way.

"We want the star to have a kind of double life, in the sense that from the water it's going to be a park," he continues. "And from the air it's going to be a kind of watermark, or monument, if you wish, that stands for the future." That is, the Miami area's fate as a city of 21st-century immigrants, where the vast majority of residents are, in the long view, new arrivals.

The island was about 300 feet in diameter and circular when construction crews working for urban developer Carl Fisher created it out of dredged material in 1920 for the purpose of honoring Flagler. It was deeded to the City of Miami Beach in 1939. Over the decades, erosion and perennial neglect almost doomed the 96-foot obelisk and the four 25-foot-tall tiara-clad human figures (two male and two female) at its base personifying Education, Industry, Prosperity, and the Pioneer. Disintegration of the island's shore would have caused the monument to tumble into the bay, had the city not managed to perform an "emergency stabilization" in recent years. As a result, the land mass is now almost a half-acre larger than it originally was, and its shape has become "amoebic," says William Cary, Miami Beach manager of design and preservation.

Several months ago, the city installed two binocular viewers on a public walkway at the western edge of South Beach, allowing the public to gaze more closely at Monument Island, currently designated as a recreational park. It is very scruffy these days, covered with an extensive cluster of palms and other trees as well as grassy plants known as sea oats, and is usually dappled with beer cans and assorted litter. The Flagler memorial is also ragged. "There's a tremendous amount of graffiti on it, and there's been a lot of damage," Cary reports. "The lighting systems have been totally destroyed on a couple of occasions because it's almost impossible to maintain security. People leave a lot of garbage and debris out there."

If Behar and Marquardt had their way, people looking through the binoculars would spy a lovely earth-tone wall along the angular perimeter of the eight-pointed island. Someone with a good imagination might even see it as the shell of a small and ancient fort, they think. Or at least compare it to the coral-colored wall along South Bayshore Drive between the sidewalk and the woods on the western perimeter of the Vizcaya estate. Tall palms would be evenly spaced along a seawall walkway. The island's interior would be creatively landscaped, with palms and other native trees and plants, and furnished with larger-than-life sofas, say four feet tall and twenty feet long.

"A primeval Miami landscape," Behar says. "It's better if [the monument] stays and you discover it as you would a ruin within the jungle. It's going to be much more exciting, as a story that you discover about the city. We would like to have another small monument that appears in this jungle, to [pioneer] Julia Tuttle. So that Julia and Henry can be part of the foundation and can share the glory of the founding of the city."

The sofas are both practical and symbolic. Something to sit on, and also symbols of "home." "We are always trying to communicate this idea of bridging the community and home, home and community," says Marquardt. "That this is our place." In her active imagination, Biscayne Bay is Miami's central square. "We see the bay as a big piazza," she adds.

And this is where the couple's vision of The Star of Miami project becomes very pointed. "It's also a way of saying, 'Hey, we all deserve a portion of the waterfront. The waterfront is also ours,'" says Behar.

"Because the bayfront is all private," Marquardt adds. "You don't have parks or anything. At least in this area."

"So it's a way of critiquing, if you wish, the privatization of the waterfront," Behar continues. "The problem is not what's being done -- the problem is what's not being done. One needs to focus on what is being done. True. But what we would like to focus on is what is missing. And what is missing is that all of us who are participating in that boom in one way or another perhaps need to realize that unless we participate in the construction of the public space, all of our endeavors are not to have the kind of meaning that they ought to. Unless we're able to express that ambition of the city in the form of a public, meaningful event."

Their Star is also aligned, they believe, with the history in Florida of creating islands in the process of digging channels in the state's shallow bays and coastal waters.

Historian Scully agrees. "All of Florida, in a way, is like the star," he says. "All the islands out there are manmade. They're all dredged up. So in a sense, it's a very traditional kind of thing to do here to make an island. After all, Florida has made a lot of them."

"Sounds wonderful," offers Kevin Smith, director of the Miami Beach parks department, after New Times briefed him on Behar and Marquardt's hallucination. "But there are massive, massive issues with historic preservation and with all the regulatory agencies."

"As long as it tells a story, and keeps in mind the history and the intent of what the monument was designed for and put there for, I think it's an interesting idea," ventures Max Sklar, the city's assistant director of cultural development and tourism. But Sklar concurs with Smith. Behar and Marquardt's Star idea will never fly without the approval of Miami Beach's powerful historic preservationists.

Before returning to reality, let's stay up here in the clouds with Behar and Marquardt for a while. Because they insist that all of us in the Miami area need to look at our hometown from a different perspective. Their lofty objective is to restore some Meaning to Biscayne Bay, where little is contemplated that isn't a high-rise hotel, condo tower, cruise ship terminal, or professional sports arena. It was a search for Meaning, in part, that attracted the Argentineans, who both received architecture degrees from the Universidad Nacional de Rosario in the Seventies, to New York. There Behar attended the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City, while Marquardt found "survival work" in the profession. Behar studied with the demigods of a brave new architectural universe, such as Rem Koolhaas, Robert Venturi, and Aldo Rossi, who helped restore Meaning to architecture in the United States.

"It was really quite a contribution to architectural discourse," Scully says of the institute. "It added the sense that architecture was susceptible to a very complex criticism. And that was really important back there in the Sixties and Seventies, especially because the American architecture profession at that time was enormously anti-intellectual. They wanted to be part of this modernist, Bauhaus influence, wanting to believe that everything derived empirically from function and structure, and really hating any more complicated suggestions of meaning." The institute, he notes, fomented a return to the use of "sign and symbol" in architecture. For instance, domes evoke the sky and spirituality, columns connote strength and democracy, neon signage could conjure up Las Vegas. And a star shape calls to mind, well, a star.

With such philosophical notions swirling in their heads, Behar and Marquardt moved from New York to Miami in 1983. Coincidentally, that was the year Christo and Jeanne-Claude had finally concluded a two-year process of securing public support and governmental permits for Surrounded Islands. With the help of construction crews, they placed enormous pieces of pink plastic in the waters around eleven islands in Biscayne Bay. As planned, it lasted two weeks. "No doubt that is the precedent," acknowledges Behar, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Miami who has also lectured at Harvard and Cornell. "I think that project is important insofar as it presented the possibility of how the city is to be seen from the air. Christo rediscovered that aerial point of view, in a way. Christo's project is best seen from the air."

But Behar notes The Star of Miami is different from Surrounded Islands in two important ways. "That was amorphous, this is a star," he says. "That was a temporary structure, this is a permanent one." The meaning of this latter difference can be understood as follows: Getting approval for an ephemeral work was almost impossible.

Joe Fleming, a Miami lawyer who helped Christo and Jeanne-Claude through the complicated and lengthy permit process, recalls the morass. "They were basically working in waters of the state, so they needed federal, state, county, and local permitting," he says. "They had all the land-use issues. They had to get the right to use the land from the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund, which is the Florida governor and the cabinet. That was one set of hearings. Then they had to go and obtain the permission of Dade County, and then all the municipalities. And then they had to make sure they had a clear title. They had to get the necessary insurance, had to go through hearings. Then they had to worry about the fact that it was going to be affected by all the environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, which has permitting requirements for putting anything in the water, even pouring water into water. They had to put the fabric in the water, they had to put lines in the water, they had to put anchors. And then they had to worry about endangered species. They had manatee issues because manatees are endangered and they had other species out there. They had bird issues because questions came up whether endangered or threatened species would be affected."

Ultimately Christo and Fleming prevailed, and skeptics viewed the project as beneficial to Biscayne Bay. "The Christo project cleaned the islands up, and that was part of the transactional, negotiated arrangement," Fleming notes. "That was something that was done so that the islands were better off than before because they had refrigerators and all kinds of stuff that people go out there and dump." DERM, the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management, issued "a very positive report and said that it was one of the better things that ever happened to the bay," Fleming recalls. "People celebrated the bay. The bay was cleaned up."

Inside their house in South Beach, Behar and Marquardt lead you to a room dominated by a large square platform similar to the ones kids have for toy train sets. Instead of a little railroad, though, it holds a village filled with models of their works: An M for Miami, The Living Room, House of Cards (the twelve-foot-tall version of the latter was exhibited at the Miami Art Museum last summer), and others, all in miniature. And sure enough, at the center of this landscape is an eight-point star made of wood, about a foot in diameter and painted light green. A tiny dark green plastic alligator, with mouth open, looks poised to crawl onto it.

"Many of these projects actually stand for shared memories. You see, in a place where everyone comes from somewhere else, to discover shared memories is, in part, our task," Behar explains. "This is An M for Miami, but it's also an alphabet letter that you and I may have played with, even though I grew up in Buenos Aires and you grew up in the States. So in the end, we may find something we have in common."

The Living Room, Behar continues, is a "synthesis of everyone's memories of what a home could be. That's why we associate with it and see a living room. Nobody asks, is that really a living room? It is a living room. It is The Living Room. There's no doubt about it. Even though it's pretty weird, if you think about it. Because it's 42 feet tall. It's real, but at the same time it's fantastic." Behar has observed residents of Little Haiti taking family portraits on the disproportionately large sofa in The Living Room. "I think that's amazing," he says. "What that tells you is that they see it as their home. At the end of the day, The Living Room doesn't belong to us, nor does it belong to the person who paid for it, Craig Robins. The Living Room belongs to the city, to the neighborhood. It belongs to all of us."

The purpose behind all of their public works is to create "a kind of meaningful urban space," Behar says. "That's key."

Or in some cases, the idea of a meaningful space. Their Casa del Pirata (Pirate's House), for example, was never built. Using pieces of boards they had hoped to find in Cuba, Behar and Marquardt had planned to construct the nine-foot-wide, eight-foot-tall, sixteen-foot-long shanty on top of a wall of the La Cabaña fortress, a relic of the Spanish colonial period that overlooks Havana. It was to be their contribution to the Bienal de la Habana art festival in Cuba last November and the first work by artists from Miami, the disgraced home of counterrevolutionaries.

As usual, it was layered with possible meanings. "It's a contradiction for a pirate to have a house," Behar explains. "The house of a pirate is a ship, actually." Casa del Pirata, he continues, was also to be a monument to individuality and courage. "Maybe the house implies there was a shipwreck," he muses. Like The Star of Miami, Casa del Pirata represents "the need for a new beginning, which is very American at the end of the day," Behar suggests. But it was not meant to be political, he insists.

Nonetheless the Bienal curators nixed the project, citing government rules against tampering with the fort's infrastructure. "The project was not a political statement, but it could be read as one," Behar notes, conceding that, for a work coming from the first Miami-based artists invited to the Bienal, "maybe it was too much."

It is likely that The Star of Miami will be too much for authorities on this side of the Florida Straits to take. To begin with, just the regulations dealing with water could scuttle the project. "If they're touching any part of the water, the Army Corps of Engineers would very definitely be involved. So would Miami-Dade County. And there might be a number of different environmental issues," says Joe Fleming, Christo's regulatory guide. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would want to know how the habitat of any species swimming by the island would be affected.

Then there is the permanence of it all. "Christo's project didn't involve fill. It just involved going into the water," Fleming says. He suggests Behar and Marquardt could perhaps figure out how to extend the star points above the water's surface, thus eliminating the need to dump earth into Biscayne Bay. Alternatively, the lawyer speculates that another tack the artists could take would be to tie The Star of Miami to future anti-erosion plans.

Behar and Marquardt admit they would need to find engineering, construction, and landscaping experts to manage the project. But they insist that wouldn't be a problem if only the City of Miami Beach or Miami-Dade County would rally behind their vision. "It would be very, very simple," Behar maintains. "It's surprising that a politician hasn't taken it."

Behar even has clever ideas for raising most of the five to seven million dollars he estimates it would cost: Convince the area's biggest art collectors to sell one piece from each of their collections. "One work of art from the [Norman] Bramans, the de la Cruzes, Craig [Robins], and the Rubells would build the island," he says. "Which would be an incredible contribution to their memory, really, and to their participation in the invention of Miami."

School kids could be involved in a penny collection project. "Not because of the monetary importance of the money that we can raise from the kids, but because of the symbolical importance of everyone in town collaborating to make The Star of Miami," Behar adds. "A kind of collective enterprise that we can all, despite anything, participate in. It wouldn't be hard to include everyone's name, even if you donated ten dollars. The list can be as long as needed for people that in one way or another contributed to make this dream possible."

Once built, The Star of Miami would be managed as a public park. In this part of the fantasy, maintenance workers actually take care of the park daily. "A couple of people will cut the trees a little bit every so often, make sure that the plants are growing well," Behar suggests.

"Or take the garbage out," his wife adds.

"We would like the project really not to be ours but to be a kind of community endeavor in a way, where kids may come and schools may come and plant a tree," Behar continues. "We really think it's possible, that it's not far-fetched by any means. Mainly because the land is there already, and right now it looks really bad."

While some Miami Beach officials are intrigued by the idea, William Cary, the city's design and preservation manager, is certain the Star proposal will never get past the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board, which would have to approve any project to alter the island. And, ironically for Behar and Marquardt, Miami Beach officials are in the early stages of a complicated bureaucratic process to decide whether to spend several million dollars to make the island perfectly round again. A star shape is simply not in the equation. "If it's not both environmentally and financially feasible to restore the island to the original plan conceived of by Carl Fisher -- to its pristine circular shape -- I'm sure that the board would opt to maintain the island in its current configuration," Cary insists. "It would be very contrary to the intent of the man who actually conceived of this wonderful memorial to Flagler and used all of his money and genius to develop this and have it designed. I'm an artist myself, and as much as I love public art, it would not be the appropriate thing to do to create an eight-pointed star there."

Moreover, city officials hope eventually to apply for a designation on the National Register of Historic Places. Which means Behar and Marquardt will have to move like wizards in a magical realism novel to get The Star of Miami on Monument Island. Or perhaps they will envision the Star farther west, in waters ruled by the City of Miami, where historic preservation tends to be a hallucination.

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