Earth, Wind and Fire Frozen in Time

Mille Fiori (photo by Al Hurley)

Mille Fiori (photo by Al Hurley)

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

Persian Ceiling "Where We've Been and Where We're Going"-Alfonso (photo by Scott M. Leen)

Persian Ceiling “Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going”-Alfonso (photo by Scott M. Leen)

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.”

Albert Alfonso contemplates the Blue Neon Tumbleweed (photo by Al Hurley)

Albert Alfonso contemplates the Blue Neon Tumbleweed (photo by Al Hurley)

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 Float Boat Room (photo by Scott M. Leen)

The Float Boat Room (photo by Scott M. Leen)

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.

  • David M. Glass

    It takes a lot of this type of work to impress a fellow whose name is, “Glass.” I am VERY impressed. Got to get over to St Pete for a look see of my own. Many thanks for posting. BE GREAT!!

  • Saxon Henry

    Glad you enjoyed the post…not surprising it knocks people out given the talent between the two men involved. Hope you have a great day!

  • Paul Anater

    The Chihuly Collection is a triumph for both the architect and the artist. The synergy between the two is in evidence in each gallery. It’s a must-see for anybody who finds him- or herself anywhere near the Gulf Coast of Florida.

  • Saxon Henry

    You’re lucky you live so close. I could see the venue as a place to return to where something new is discovered each time you stroll through the galleries.

  • quinessence

    I agree with Paul – what a successful synergy. And what beautiful photographs – especially of the Blue Neon Tumbleweed – a work of art in and of itself!! I wish I could see this but perhaps I’ll make it to Boston this summer to see the exhibit there!! Great piece!

  • quintessence

    Oops – spelled my own name wrong!!

  • Saxon Henry

    Funny, Stacey: I do that, too. One day I looked back at a comment and I’d put Roaring by Design (althought that’s not too far off)!!! It is such a beautiful exhibition and I think the space is perfect for the dynamic glasswork. That’s Albert’s great talent. He was one of the architects in my book “Four Florida Moderns” and I had such an appreciation for his aesthetic…