Dale Chihuly’s glass art is rightly renowned for many things. It is never, however, accused of being understated. It is vibrant, life affirming and joyful. All of that is very wonderful but somewhat challenging if you’ve been tasked to build a home for a permanent collection of the great man’s work.
Modenus was fortunate enough to be able to ask Florida based architect Alberto Alfonso how he set about designing the first installation of Dale Chihuly’s art in a building specifically designed for that purpose in St Petersburg.
When the architect and the glass artist first met around five years ago in Seattle, they instantly hit it off . The suspicion that a glass or two of fine Grappa over dinner that night may have been involved was neither confirmed nor denied. They soon discovered a mutual admiration of Venetian Architect Carlo Scarpa. He designed a frustratingly small number of buildings but is known for his settings for exhibitors by Klee (Venice, 1948) and Mondrian (Rome, 1956). His approach was to create an environment that would interact with the art. Its not a question of crudely imitating the art or upstaging it. More providing a context which works with it. The space should be much more than a frame for a piece of art – it is a carefully contrived environment within which the art works. And that’s very much the approach taken by Alberto Alfonso as well.
We talked about the importance of materials. The palate used for the exhibition spaces is rich and sensuous. There is not an inch of drywall in the place. There are however stone, steel and woods, including fragrant cypress wood. The gallery assails almost all the senses. Visitors often comment on the sent of cedar, something Alberto is delighted with. He remembers arriving in Seattle for his first meeting with Chihuly and being struck by the smells and sounds of the city as well as the sites. It was the smell of wood from Seattle’s countryside that he wanted to bring to the gallery.
The one sense which isn’t yet designed into the experience is sound, although Alberto told us that this may yet be addressed. A performance amongst the rich surfaces and glass would be a remarkable experience..
The experience of walking through the twelve rooms is in some ways, similar to listening to a symphony. Large and small pieces of glass contrast. Spaces are small, then large, creating intimacy and awe. In one room the floor is polished Travertine tile reflecting the work. In another it is dark and, as Alfonso described it, feeling like a void. The sensuous folds of the Chandelier Room trace an Alvar Aalto vase turned upside down
At the interior entrance to the Collection is a massive pivoting steel door with a wooden handle carved by the architect himself. Alberto told us about the impact of the door on visitors. On one side there is a hubbub of conversation and chatter. There is a retail space nearby. On the other side there is a hushed reverence that is reminiscent of sacred spaces.
The way in which Alberto creates is interesting. His father was a painter and the son uses the medium of water colour as a quick, early stage tool to develop and demonstrate his ideas. Talking about his watercolour sketches he is almost nonchalant about a medium in whch he is clearly relaxed, comfortable and fluent. As an aside he told us about one of his current projects where a poet sends him a poem every day. Alberto responds with a painting. There are some 140 poem-painting pairings so far.
We ended, as we started, talking about materials. Alfonso has an almost obsessive regard for the way in which they join. The transition from, say stone to wood, or glass to stone. His advice for interior designers to put their focus on those joints, to make the transition, the edge, the joint a conscious, carefully considered choice.
If you want to know how that works in practice, you could do a lot worse than spend an afternoon in St Petersburg enjoying the art of Dale Chihuly and, indeed, the art of Alberto Alfonso.
The Chihuly Collection is open seven days a week at 400 Beach Drive, St Petersburg, Florida 33701.