We make a slight detour today into the rarefied galleries of the Wolfsonian-FIU, the little powerhouse museum on South Beach whose exhibits of art and objects should be mandatory for any self-respecting urbanista.
The unusual museum is hard to define -- that’s part of the appeal. One way to summarize the mission is to say it traces the roots of modern Western life through art, design, architecture, advertising and propaganda.
I went for the opening of Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints, 1914-1939 – a remarkable and rarely seen collection of images of urban scenes that were then new and exciting, though sometimes with an edge of creeping alienation. Sometimes in abstract form, others faithfully representational, the prints depict speeding automobiles -- a particular fascination. London Underground stations and packed subway cars. Shipyards and docks. Sidewalk crowds on Oxford Street and Times Square bathed in the novelty of electric lights. The growing allure of sports as entertainment – from soccer players to wrestlers to rowers on the Thames, race-cars, sprinters and competitive ice skaters.
Here is one of my favorites, a 1935 linocut depiction of the cycling Tour of Switzerland, by Lill Tschudi:
In some ways, the exhibit, which draws mainly on the collection of Johanna and Leslie Garfield and is on view through the end of February, points the way to one contemporary urban dilemma: the fascination with speed and the automobile, which has made such a hash of American cities. (One print celebrates the Bluebird, which set a land-speed record of 246 mph at Daytona in 1931.)
The connection smacked me in the face on the way out. Hanging in the museum lobby are a set of colossal aerial color photographs of Los Angeles freeways by American Benny Chan. From above, the highways appear as massive scars on the landscape.
Does this seem familiar? For all the anonymity of the urban surroundings, this could just as well be I-95 at rush hour. (The Chan photos can be viewed for no charge since lobby access is free. A separate exhibit focuses on automobile design.)