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Albert Alfonso is the grand designer behind the Chihuly Collection

TAMPA — The Chihuly Collection opens July 11 in downtown St. Petersburg, the only space in the world devoted to a museum-like permanent collection of works by glass artist Dale Chihuly. Many people deserve credit for the project, but none more than architect Albert Enrique Alfonso. Alfonso, 52, has been closely involved with it from its inception in 2005 through changes in design, size and location, plus a change in leadership at the Morean Arts Center, which will own and operate the Chihuly Collection. That's rare — really unheard of — in museum construction. Major talent is one reason he has continued with the project. But even the biggest starchitects have been discarded with old plans when major shifts occurred. Alfonso's staying power has as much to do with who he is as what he is. He seems to have a deep and innate empathy that has resulted in a wide circle of longtime friends who reflect his multiple talents and interests and include both childhood pals and celebrities. Loyalty is one of the characteristics he seems to inspire. Chihuly has said the project's ongoing viability was due mostly to his confidence in and comfort level with Alfonso. Bestselling author Frances Mayes, who is Alfonso's neighbor in Cortona, Italy, where he has a vacation home, devoted a chapter of a book to him and his family.

Alfonso inspires loyalty mainly because he gives it in equal measure. The outlook for the project was at its bleakest a year ago when the economy had crashed — and with it plans to expand the arts center at 719 Central Ave. and build the addition that would house the Chihuly Collection.

A developer stepped forward with a proposal to put the glass sculptures and installations in retail space on the first floor of a high-rise condominium at 400 Beach Drive NE.

"We were disappointed, as you can imagine," Chihuly said in a recent telephone interview from his studio in Tacoma, Wash.

Instead of a new building designed for the glass art, valued at $6 million, he was looking at a proposal for a smaller space planned for retail business and without the soaring ceilings that could accommodate his massive installations.

Chihuly understandably wavered.

"I said to Katee (Tully, the executive director of the arts center) that we have to go out there and save this," Alfonso says. "I worked up some sketches and a model, and they were willing to listen."

He and Tully flew to Tacoma.

When he saw Alfonso's vision for the new galleries, Chihuly said he was convinced it could still work.

"He did a magnificent job of taking an existing space and breathing new life into it," Chihuly says. "It probably wouldn't have gone forward if Albert hadn't been committed to it. That was my tipping point."

"Over the years I have developed such a friendship with Dale," Alfonso says. "I know his work so well. It's kind of like the difference between wine and grapes, how over time everything's so compressed."

"We hit it off immediately," Chihuly says of their first meeting in 2005. "We shared many interests."

Alfonso is professionally an architect but he also composes music and writes manuscripts. He's an especially accomplished painter, self-taught. He cites as his role model his father, who, he says, was an avocational painter and, it seems, passed along to his son the gift for friendship and success.

Carlos Alfonso was a prominent Cuban architect in the late 1950s, when Castro rose to power and work was scarce.

"He was apolitical," Alfonso says. "But one day he runs into a friend who had gone to the mountains to fight with Fidel and this guy gets my father the job of distributing all the work to all the architects in Havana."

Still, he says, it was a time of great anxiety for those who did not openly support the dictator, when people could be arrested and executed on the basis of an anonymous phone call accusing them of being anti-Castro.

"My mother worked at City Hall," Alfonso says. "Someone calls and she happens to answer it. The caller was reporting my father as a counter-revolutionary. She doesn't tell the caller who she is, just says she'll process the information. She hangs up, goes home and tells my father that we have to get out of Cuba."

That was 1960. Alfonso was 2 and his brothers, Carlos and Tony, were 5 and 3.

They bought forged papers and arranged for a "vacation" in Haiti with friends living there. They left with beach clothes and $150 so soldiers searching bags at the airport wouldn't be suspicious.

After a month, they flew to Miami. They didn't stay long because "my father felt that all the Cubans there believed this was just temporary, that soon they'd be able to go back home. He knew that wasn't going to happen and wanted us to make a permanent life in the U.S. 'We're Americans now,' he said. So he brought us to Tampa."

His father quickly found work doing architectural drawings and eventually landed in the firm that would design the award-winning Tampa International Airport. He was its lead architect. They picked up English quickly, too, Alfonso says, in part because "my dad was a Sinatra fanatic and knew all the lyrics."

Albert shortened his name from Alberto because "remember Alberto VO5 — that shampoo? That's what I was called at school." He earned a graduate degree from the University of Florida and married his wife, Susan, in 1985. They have a daughter, Olivia, 18 (studying architecture at her dad's alma mater), and a son, Albert Joseph, 13.

His brother, Carlos, also graduated with an architectural degree from Florida and in 1988, with their father, founded Alfonso Architects. Carlos Sr. was semiretired at that point and the brothers pretty much took over, "learning to make chicken salad out of bad projects," he says. "We didn't make any money because my No. 1 goal was to develop a design firm and a body of work to be really proud of."

As the firm has grown, Carlos Jr. began concentrating on developments in which his brother would design a project and his father would oversee construction. Tony, now a retired pilot, came in to help with development, too. Since 2001 Alfonso Architects has won increasingly significant commissions: several large buildings at the University of South Florida, the Sam Rampello Downtown Partnership School, the Nielsen Media Research Center, an open-air chapel and an expansive lakeside house, for example. Alfonso designed Airside C, the latest addition to Tampa International Airport, which Albert considers a tribute to his father, who died in 2002 at 78. All hew to the Alfonsos' lyrical interpretations of the modernist school.

He figures prominently in two new books. The first is expected: He's one of four architects featured in Four Florida Moderns by Saxon Henry. To his surprise, Alfonso and his family also appear in Mayes' newest paean to Tuscany, Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life. The author, who gained fame with Under the Tuscan Sun, titled the Alfonso chapter "Amici," or "Friends."

They had vacationed in Cortona — where Mayes lives with her husband, poet Ed Mayes — for about five years, beginning in 1989, though they didn't know the Mayeses. Alfonso figured it made sense to buy a place that could be a rental property in offseason. He and his brothers found a little house up the hill from the Mayeses' property and soon the families became good friends.

Ed Mayes and Alfonso are working on a joint project in which Mayes writes a poem every day and e-mails it to Alfonso, who creates a small painting in response. They're up to more than 100 and figure on going to 365. They plan to exhibit the work at the Morean Arts Center in 2011 for a fundraiser.

If he could, Alfonso would probably paint full time. He has a studio in the building that houses Alfonso Architects, an old train station in Ybor City that has been glamorously renovated with a combination of original and new elements. He snatches time to draw and sketch but mostly marshals his paints and brushes in service to his architectural business. For all his designs, Alfonso sketches incessantly, beginning with scribbles that become more refined as the stack of drawings grows.

"That's not the norm," he says. "Most work is computer generated. I think it leads you too quickly to an answer. "

For the Chihuly project, some of his sketches are meticulously detailed with specific measurements; others are extravagant little paintings of the finished spaces that will total 10,000 square feet and include 7,600 square feet of galleries.

"There was, of course, the ego thing," Alfonso says when he realized he would only be designing a facade and galleries, not a building. "But this Chihuly project is so important for St. Petersburg. For me it became a matter of the will to see something through. And I honestly think in many ways this smaller version is better. I never could have afforded the finishes and materials we're using in the larger spaces. There's no drywall here."

Among those finishes are references to the Pacific Northwest and Chihuly's art — wood, stone and glass — and the artist's love of Italy — Venetian plaster. (Finding someone who knew how to do that was a challenge.)

"This is the first time that the architecture of a space responds to his work," Alfonso says. "Dale's never really had that."

"I'm excited," Chihuly says. "I have a great level of comfort with Albert."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

Albert Alfonso is the grand designer behind the Chihuly Collection 06/02/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 12:39pm]
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