Founding Fictions: George Sánchez-Calderón’s “Pax Americana”
George Sánchez-Calderón, “Pax Americana,” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.
This grand experiment of a country is always churning out results, one way or another. On November 6, 2012 Mrs. Palermo’s 5th grade classroom at Shadowlawn Elementary – an elementary school in Little Haiti – was filled with adults sitting cramped at tiny tables and talking excitedly as they bubbled-in ballots. A small American flag was hanging forlornly in the corner over a whiteboard upon which a science definition for young minds was jotted with a hasty impatience: “Energy is the ability to cause change or do work.”
A few weeks before the election, George Sánchez-Calderón unveiled his work for the Unscripted series, a public arts project by the seaside Bal Harbour community. Curated by Claire Breukel, an independent curator from South Africa and former executive director of Locust Projects here in Miami, Unscripted is meant to provide South Floridian artists with a platform for engaging the public and draw attention to Bal Harbour as a “creative destination.” George Sánchez-Calderón was the first recipient of the commission and for it he created two works. The works are collectively titled “Pax Americana” and were placed adjacent to the Bal Harbour Shops, a luxury mall containing some of the most expensively priced retail stores in the country. Together, the two large artworks stand at the busy intersection of Collins and 97th street, as well as at the figurative junction of history – both local and national – memory, and genre.
The Levey Family in front of their original Levittown house in Cape Cod, 1948. Courtesy of Peter Bacon Hales of the Art History Department at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
George Sánchez-Calderón, “Pax Americana,” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.
One of the works is a re-creation of a Levittown-style house, the original suburban home in the United States. Introduced by the Levitt & Sons Company after World War II, it was the model used for a housing program through the Veterans Administration. The program sold cheap, standardized homes to returning veterans at deep discounts. The home, with its white-picket fence, lawn, and colonial aesthetic – as well as the model of the suburban neighborhood – eventually came to dominate the American topography as families fled the city in search of greater privacy, larger property, and idyllic community.
Calderón’s reproduction of the Levittown house is meant to touch upon the beginnings of Bal Harbour, which shared similarities with the suburban developments that came after the war. The community was fully planned before it was built (Coral Gables was the only other neighborhood in Miami that had a master plan), and it served as a site for the post-war housing boom. The area was utilized during WWII as a barracks before development had begun; where the luxury Bal Harbour Shops currently stand, there was a German POW camp.
The differences are stark though between “Florida’s Paradise” and the other post-war communities – Bal Harbour was created with the wealthy and elite specifically in mind, whereas the areas with Levittown-style houses were for the middle classes. The contrast of Calderon’s reproduction with the surrounding high-rises is striking, more so because the scaled-down reproduction is uncannily smaller than a full-sized house. The outside of the structure is painted-on, so you can only see the surface and not within.
George Sánchez-Calderón, “Pax Americana,” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.
The other work is a stainless steel sign that reads “AMERICANA.” The sign was installed in front of the current St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort and references the site’s previous tenant; the notorious Americana Hotel that hosted some of Miami’s biggest, booziest parties stocked with thousands of hookers and, in its heyday, many a US president too.
The sign evokes the memory of the historic hotel built by the iconic architect Morris Lapidus in 1956, who also designed the Fountainbleu and Eden Roc hotels just south of Bal Harbour. Lapidus was integral to defining a Miami Modern aesthetic and was both applauded and harangued for his then-risky architectural flourishes. His buildings were critically mocked for their curvy facades, seemingly useless application of holes (the famed “cheese-holes”), and their gaudy, bright color schemes.
A postcard showing the Americana Hotel.
The Americana Hotel had all these hallmarks of Lapidus’ design plus a gigantic glass terrarium with rare plants and alligators in the lobby. He came to be revered after Miami Beach experienced a commercial boom in the ’50s and ’60s and the public took strongly to his work. Lapidus has since been praised as a proto-postmodernist, an architect who was gettin’ weird before everyone else was. Look around Miami and you’ll see his work or influence, especially on the beach and the Biscayne corridor.
The “Americana” sign is a sleek, modern ode to the hotel. Its nostalgic for the time when Miami Beach was just becoming instead of being; when the city was a splendored vista filled with opportunity rather than just filled, and when a man like Morris could make millions from the sheer gusto of his flamboyant ingenuity. But it doesn’t only reference the hotel, its builder and location. Both the sign and the Levittown house speak to larger questions of American identity.
“Americana” is not only the famed hotel – it’s also a term that encompasses all of the symbols, artifacts, and narratives that harken the American Experience. It is Lady Liberty. It is a Norman Rockwell painting. It is jazz music and baseball and apple pie; it is the overuse of clichéd sayings and imagery. This Land is Your Land, Elvis, jeans and Coca Cola. It’s the summation of civilizing activity and myth production that goes on to form and inform the American identity – for better and for worse, and for outcomes that can sometimes be ambiguous.
Though usually used to describe the Americana music genre – folk and alt country and bluegrass amongst others – the genre covers the gamut of cultural work that seeks to define, or makes a claim to represent, the American way of life. So when Calderón makes a huge sign that says AMERICANA and sticks it somewhere, it’s going to spark a million ideas and feelings in anyone who has ever given any thought to this country and their place in it.[i]
Politicians, interest groups, and individuals routinely claim that their views represent what is truly “American” but, when you look at the content of their stances, you find a wide spectrum of opposing positions. “Americana” and what it really means to be American is impossible to define by the contingent nature of our democracy. Because the USA is not (supposed to be) centered on a single race, ethnicity or linguistic group, all we really got is time and space, the diverse canon of stories we tell to make sense of the landscape, and the tiring struggle between narratives. So, things can get a little confusing and tangled up since, as the arts writer Hrag Vartanian recently commented, “the only things that unite Americans are a few ideas.[ii]” A few ideas and a whole lot of kitsch.
Calderón’s “Americana” sign is left wide open to interpretation – letter to shining letter – and not only because of the reservoir of meaning that the word holds. As Calderón said, “Meaning and interpretation of my work has never been didactic. I am comfortable with various readings and embrace them all. Working in the public realm, displaying objects where anyone can see them, read them, interpret them and deny them is at the core of public work.” Things, of course, change with time too. The sign has an aura that the original hotel sign never had because, in 2012, to be American means something different than in 1956. The looming sign invokes both a hope and burden. It is intensely reflective and burns the eyes at the right time of day.
Courtesy of the artist and thereisnothere.org.
The son of Cuban exiles and a Miami resident for most of his life, George Sánchez-Calderón is a multistoried man. Towering with a booming voice, his physical stature pairs well with his artistic endeavoring: the creation and repurposing of large scale artworks that either employ or relate to architecture. Among his works, many of which are site-specific, Calderón built a reproduction of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye underneath the I-395, just near Overtown in 2001. The piece was titled “La Bendicion,” and stood alit with the incandescence of a UFO from sundown to sunrise for two years.
Courtesy of the artist.
The original Villa Savoye, finished in 1931, was and by many is still considered to be the “quintessential modern home.” Its creator, the renowned Franco-Swiss architect in espousing a philosophy that architecture should relieve the tension of crowded urban living and improve life for the masses and conforming to an aesthetic creed that every conceivable detail permitted must serve a function, conceived the Savoye house to utilize almost everything from elevation – to provide greater continuity with outside spaces – and large windows – for light and ventilation – to a roof acting as a garden or terrace.
The original Villa Savoye. Courtesy of the artist.
Le Corbusier railed against the trends of art deco and other movements that praised style in excess – the types of movements that Morris Lapidus was working with a few decades later – and is now regarded as the bringer of architecture into the modern machine age, where high-rises and parking garages dominate. Many criticisms have been doled out to Le Corbusier and his strand of utopianism, particularly because it failed to consider just whose functions were being served. Calderón’s juxtaposition of “La Bendicion” with the highway that cuts through Overtown was a potent, critical indictment of a city bent on a very specific idea of progress.
Once called the “Harlem of the South,” Overtown was the area where Henry Flagler’s black railroad workers settled in the early 1900s and was a place of bustling commercialism and cultural activity following World War II. Hundreds of businesses owned by blacks were opened and countless black (and non-black) cultural figures performed and worked there. Overtown, formerly “Colored Town,” was the place where Nat King Cole, Billy Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald stayed when they weren’t allowed to lodge at the hotels they were performing at – namely, the aforementioned Fountainbleu and Eden Roc.
In the 50s and 60s, Overtown experienced a series of paralyzing setbacks and intrusions. Efforts at “urban renewal,” the tumult of desegregation marked by a greater police presence, and the building of the I-95 and I-395 interchange caused a social and economic divide the damage of which persists. The highway systems displaced 80% of Overtown’s residents, interrupted businesses to the point of shutting down, and fragmented the psyche of a once thriving community.[iii] This is not to say that Overtown didn’t have problems before these events unfolded, but it is clear that the building of the highway – in the name of greater access to Miami Beach – led directly to Overtown’s turning into a ghetto; a place now haunted by high poverty, drug addiction, and gun violence. Of course, it is not only a wasteland of crime and destitution: it has positive community leaders and members making efforts at revitalization. Still, it remains one of the poorest areas in the country and a place where adults and children are killed in the street.
If Overtown is a diamond gone rough, Bal Harbour is the city upon a hill – a living quarter and playground for the wealthy. It’s the sort of exclusive, condo-ridden tropical paradise that only late capitalism could produce with its transnational flow of finance and snowbirds. Bal Harbour is one of the most affluent zip codes in all the United States, and it prides itself officially as being a “pristine community.” It had zero murders in 2012, one sex offense, and a mere fifty boating citations.[iv] It has the highest concentration of palm trees in the world.
The sterility and exclusivity of Bal Harbour doesn’t preclude it from good public work. Though Calderón’s pieces feels a bit out of place, “Pax Americana” develops strong questions about history – Bal Harbour’s but also the time of the US after WWII – and space too. Through his past work in Overtown we’re able to see diametrically facing worlds that exist in the same city, and how those two places are developed and constituted in relation to each other.
On a larger scale, the works illustrate the function of myth in the US. The Levittown house – and the home more broadly – is a sanctuary for citizens, a place we’re allotted our ultimate privacy; it’s where we raise our children, house our grief, and whisper our secrets and needs. The White House is a house. The story of the home is linked up to core ideas of being American.
The Americana sign is a simpler explication, but also comes more fully loaded. It shows the range of things that can be used to define an identity and an experience. The sign displays the contingent nature of our democracy – how the liberty that enabled my voting for President at Shadowlawn Elementary can also enable Adam Lanza’s killing spree at Sandy Hook.
“Pax Americana,” meaning American peace, references the period of relative calm that the world entered after WWII and when the US became the preeminent global power. There’s obviously much to be argued, but Calderón’s use of it doesn’t lead to obvious conclusions – it can be accepting or incredulous, praising or critical.
In March of 2013, George Sánchez-Calderón will ritualistically burn the Levittown house that he made. A burning house is a gesture too that gets many Americans right in the gut[.]
[i] I’d suggest too that those people who just glance at the sign and turn away without considering it are also performing an American-style analysis: the sort of passive not-giving-much-of-a-shit that is no less valid but is considerably less mineable when writing a grandiose article on American art, politics, and society.
[ii] Hyperallergic. “Piecing America Together,” Hrag Vartanian, 2012. http://hyperallergic.com/59971/sarah-rahbar-flags/
[iii] I strongly encourage you readers to check out Charles “Stretch” Ledford’s project “Overtown: Inside/Out,” a collection of videos by residents who recorded their stories at interactive kiosks placed throughout Overtown, which also contains much information on the history of the place. http://overtowner.com/overtown/