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When the Morean Arts Center presented the Chihuly Collection of glass sculptures in St. Petersburg, Fla. last year, it wasn't just any old exhibition premiere. It was the culmination of nearly five years of design work and a career that's infamous for molding an entire medium into an artform.
"There's before Dale Chihuly and then there's after Dale Chihuly. Before Dale, glass was just a craft. He really made it into high art," says Alberto Alfonso, AIA, founding principal and president of Alfonso Architects, the award-winning 35 member architectural firm responsible for the design and architecture of the Chihuly exhibit.
Alfonso's participation on the Chihuly exhibit should come as no surprise. He loves working with masters of other fields, such as poets and painters, and creating projects that display how one discipline can build off another.
"I enjoy collaboration, but with artists it's more interesting. It used to be that the architect, sculptor and painter were always together, and that sort of fell away with the Industrial Revolution. So I think it's really powerful when you can get the arts back together, working simultaneously," Alfonso says.
One example of his love of collaboration can be found at this year's Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, Tuscany, which will feature an installation based on the joint efforts of Alfonso and poet/scholar Edward Mayes from July 30 to August 7. The two practice a daily regime of shared expression; Mayes sends over a poem each morning, which Alfonso then visually interprets as a watercolor painting. "It's a holy time that lets me do something creative that has nothing to do with architecture but yet informs the architecture when I can then jump into the work," he explains. Thirty-five poems and their accompanying paintings make up the exhibit. Alfonso also used watercolor renderings to start his design process on the Chihuly Collection.
When Chihuly and Alfonso first met over dinner in Seattle, they realized they are both Italophiles and had similar influences, such as the architect Carlo Scarpa. "We just sort of hit it off. It was one of those chemistry
things," says Alfonso, adding that their chemistry was a major reason for the project's survival through a number of tough revisions as the economy started to deteriorate. "It went from 40 million to 20 million to 10 million and then a new [museum] director sort of pulled the plug on it. I came back and called her and said, 'listen, if you want to try to revive this in whatever form, I'm in. I'm still in.'"
A new building was then selected and the project forged ahead. And since the collection is permanent, the team was able to make a plan and stick to it, rather than having to accommodate more flexible gallery space. "There's 13 different series, as this is a retrospective of Dale's work. So we had to really carefully think about a procession and a sequence."
That sequence involved chronology, placing Chihuly's earlier work in the first gallery, which features his "Basket Series" and Chihuly's own paintings, giving the viewer a sneak peek into his process. As visitors move on, scale begins to influence the sequence, as the collection presented Alfonso with a unique opportunity to create vignettes with the sculptures. Chandeliers and larger pieces are grouped together and foiled against other galleries that feature smaller pieces such as "Baskets" and Venetian vases. What also needed to work well together was, of course, the design and the art. "There's a very strong dialogue between the architecture and the work," says Alfonso. "Obviously the work is primary and the architecture supports it, but I had to be careful to resist the temptation of responding to the work in a literal way. It had to be quiet and feel like they belong together."
Alfonso and Chihuly agreed not to use drywall and that the materials needed to bring a richness to the glasswork. A tactile feeling was achieved with Venetian plaster and raw wood that visitors can smell, bringing in another element of sensory perception. Found at the bottom of the Suwannee River in Northern Florida, the 100-year-old heart of pine was used throughout the entire project after it worked well as a foil to the glass basket pieces in the first gallery.
While fading is not a worry, Alfonso says that one maintenance issue is dust, which caretakers remain vigilant against. Light will not affect the pigments used in the glass and the members of Chihuly's team are experts at manipulating it so the pieces seem to be "lit from within."
Another focus was on the transitions between one gallery to the next. "Because the work is so different, we consciously made these portals in steel and wood that compress you and let you know that you're moving from one thing to the next."
Customization is also prevalent throughout the project, from the stands and shelves that hold the sculptures to the door handle on a 10- by 10-foot steel pivot door at the entrance of the show. This is thanks to the fact that Alfonso Architects also served as the contractor on the project. "When you walk through, you can tell our hand and Dale's touched every little joint and intersection. There wasn't anything 'pulled off the shelf.'"
Everything eventually fell into place for Chihuly, an interior designer by training who attended the Rhode Island School of Design and a passionate advocate for arts education. He'd been searching for an East Coast presence for some time and the project had taken a good five years to come to fruition because of the budget cuts, location issues and more. But it was all well worth the struggle and the wait, as visitors keep coming back to the exhibit, and not just a second time, but four, five or six.
"A lot of it has to do with how much you can absorb in one visit," says Alfonso. "There seems to be just the right amount of work that you can comprehend, but it has a secondary life that makes people want to come back."
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Morean Arts Center—Chihuly Collection
400 Beach Drive NE
St. Petersburg, FL
Alfonso Architects Inc.
1705 N 16th Street
Tampa, FL 33605
Engineering Matrix. MEP
Alfonso Architects Inc.
(carbon steel walls & pivot door)
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