Sunday, October 16, 2005

From the Wright Brothers to Rara Avis

It's hard for me not to marvel that it was just over a hundred years ago that the Wright Brothers launched us into flight. It's worth about a thousand words on progress to see this 1903 photo of them taking off at Kitty Hawk on a cold, windy morning in December.

I found myself thinking about Wilbur and Orville last weekend when I flew out of Midway Airport to attend a friend's wedding. I passed Ralph Helmick's Rara Avis for the third or fourth time. I've found it so moving that this time I pulled out my camera and snapped a few shots of the rare bird.

The photo at right is how I usually come across the sculpture.

And, then I go around it and down the escalator. And, as I descend, the bird appears to take flight. The entire piece soars.

The bird itself is made up of tiny airplanes, all of which, I believe, are bi-planes. (Helmick considers his work to be "pointillist" sculpture.) It seems fitting and noble that the bird's scale ranks above the planes', a relationship one could expect humankind to easily screw up.

Unfortunately, the terminal's warehousey architecture does little to enhance the work and a lot to challenge it. Also, I was disappointed when I learned Helmick has done other sculptures similar to this one. The rara avis, it seems, is not so rare. It may even be a bit formulaic.

Nonetheless,the sculpture represents a compelling merger of place and meaning. In fact, in spirit, it reminds me of Eero Saarinen's 1962 TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in NYC. Saarinen said he wanted to create:
a building in which the architecture itself would express the drama and specialness and excitement of travel... a place of movement and transition...The shapes were deliberately chosen in order to emphasize an upward-soaring quality of line. We wanted an uplift.
On a smaller scale, I think Helmick created just that for his corner of Midway Airport.

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