Since revolutionizing the Studio Glass movement, Dale Chihuly has continually pushed to new heights and experimented with new forms, creating blown glass artistry that take command of indoor and outdoor environments regardless of a setting’s inherent beauty. His works are synonymous with drenching color—evident in the installations at the Chihuly Collection within the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, which recently opened to the public.
During an interview, I once asked the man behind the glass how he would explain the excitement his work generates and he said, “The color is a very important part of it, but it could also be the scale of the works I create. I think people are excited because they are often looking at things they’ve never seen before.” Tampa-based architect Albert Alfonso of Alfonso Architects created the backdrop for Chihuly’s vibrant works on display in the series of galleries that make up the arts center. “The Chihuly Collection would not be the spectacular space that it is today without the hard work, vision and dedication of my friend and architect Albert Alfonso, who transformed the space into a spectacular architectural environment to showcase my work,” Chihuly remarked of the 10,000-square-foot center
I had the good fortune to understand a bit about what makes Alfonso tick creatively when I was interviewing him for my most recent book Four Florida Moderns. He approaches his architectural commissions with great passion, and an artist’s eye and heart.
I asked him during that interview how the paradoxical qualities of the rational and romantic, and the rigorous and poetic relate to his creative process: “I think the reason Kahn said that architecture is an old man’s profession is because we’re constantly trying to learn the craft of architecture coupled with the art of architecture. When I say the craft, I mean connections—how materials meet and how we can express ideas in a very clear, rational way. When a steel beam is meeting a wood panel, how do they meet? There has to be some point of transition. When you look at our work you’ll see the Miesian concept of form-giving. In this respect, we try to make things very honest. We couple that with the intuitive as it relates to say, Corb, who would set up a Miesian rational grid and then violate it with a cubist or an organic shape. This creates a tension that becomes paradoxical. The way Mies accomplished the same duality was to place a Caulder sculpture in front of a building. The two are like a marriage that works, and the duality of opposites brings richness to a building.”
These themes have played out in myriad ways in past projects: musicality informed a school with a music-based curriculum in downtown Tampa, a reinterpretation of a Caravaggio painting enhanced reflective light qualities in an open-air chapel, the emotional anticipation of air travel when flying was a new and unparalleled experience was a jumping off point for his Airside C project at the Tampa International Airport For the Morean Arts Center, his friendship with Chihuly rewarded the project with an intimacy that reflected Alfonso’s adroit understanding of the glass artist’s work and his inspirations.
Knowing Chihuly’s dreams and desires deepened the project, gallery by soulful gallery. “Dale and I had talked about how he’d always wanted to do a chapel, so we began with that feeling of a central space to hold the Mille Fiori with side chapels,” he explained. “Dark patina walls mediate between the wood structural members above and travertine stone below framing the symphony of a thousand flowers of glass and light.”
The spiritual is reflected in the spaces that undulate around the glass pieces, which writhe and spark within them. Portals of light pierce walls, offering a glimpse into some mysterious future or past, and displays stand erect like altars giving themselves over to the privilege of holding such frozen liquidity born of fire. The art of Alfonso’s architecture here is that he created an environment for the sumptuous glasswork that pays homage to its importance without interfering with its power. It’s as if he understood the spirituality in Chihuly’s work and allowed it to shine through the series of warm, wafting galleries—a known or unknown testament to a boy who remembers being fascinated with glass at a young age.
“If I think way back, I remember stained glass windows in a church I went to as kid; they fascinated me,” Chihuly explained. “I also combed the beach when I was a boy for Japanese glass fishing floats—it was thrilling to find them.” Alfonso created a moody gallery for Chihuly’s floats that evokes a dramatic watery world.
“The brilliant carnival aspect of the float boat setting invokes a night scene in Venice with Palladian facades and orbs of color reflected in the canal,” he explained. Water figured just as dynamically in other galleries, such as the one containing the Blue Neon Tumbleweed. “This is a round seamless room with a deep portal that holds the fluid light of the neon tumbleweed,” he said. “Or am I underwater swimming under a man of war? I lose all horizon reference and simply swim.”
A great admirer of Le Corbusier, this is how Alfonso’s talent frequently eclipses that of other architects given the same tasks: creating drama from inert materials. His architecture and the glasswork of Dale Chihuly couldn’t have been a better match for the purpose of passionately engaging the imagination.