ST. PETERSBURG — The future home of the Salvador Dali Museum is a blank canvas, a smooth greensward adjacent to the Mahaffey Theater on the downtown waterfront.
Today it will bear the beginning marks of creation during a groundbreaking ceremony at 10:30 a.m. in much the same way the Spanish surrealist lived and worked: ceremonial flourishes, grand gestures.
And, in time, true creativity.
The design by Tampa-based architect Yann Weymouth of the international firm HOK has to serve two practical imperatives: display the collection, the most comprehensive in the world, to best advantage; and protect it from the ravages of a possible storm, up to a Category 5 hurricane, with 18-inch concrete walls.
Weymouth's third mandate is to make a strong aesthetic statement that honors Dali's legacy. He has a distinguished provenance in museum design, hired by I.M. Pei to be chief design architect for an addition to Washington's National Gallery and the Grand Louvre project with its famous glass pyramid.
This will be the architect's fourth major museum project in Florida. Others were a $43-million expansion of Sarasota's John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art that opened in 2007 and, in 2008, the openings of a $21-million addition to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and the new $19-million Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami.
Of all of them, the $35-million, 66,450-square-foot Dali Museum probably shows best Weymouth's gift for incorporating glass creatively into a design.
"What I love about this building is its duality," he says. "It's like a Dali painting. There's a moment when you look at one and you see a scene you understand. Then you look more closely and something begins to play with your perceptions. That duality — the logical, Euclidian box with the flowing glass — is an abstraction of the way Dali painted."
He uses such allusions to Dali's ideas and images without re-creating them literally as Dali himself did at the museum he built in Figueres, Spain, to house the other great collection of his work. There, for example, giant eggs line the roof and an enormous geodesic dome designed by his friend Buckminster Fuller, the visionary architect, dominates the landscape.
"There are no literal references to Dali here," Weymouth says. "The glass is a geodesic structure but not a 1950s one — it's for the 21st century. It began as a functional design to provide more space for the store. We used computers to shape it, the way the forces of physics move things. It's like a water droplet in motion."
The building's "rigorous functionality" is a special point of pride for him. In the galleries, every internal wall is moveable and the lighting system is the finest available so art can be arranged in any configuration.
The gallery containing the museum's seven monumental Dali paintings will be different. Each work will be washed in a separate pool of natural light from windows strategically placed and glazed with strong UV-protected glass.
"A cloud will go over the sun," Weymouth says, "and the painting will change as you look at it."
Those revelations won't be enjoyed until the museum opens, projected for late 2010 or early 2011. The construction budget is $9-million short of its goal. But museum leaders are going forward, convinced of the need for a larger, safer facility and confident the public will support it.
Architecture, fundraising, the art of Salvador Dali. They're all, in their own ways, part science, part poetry. And all rely to various degrees on natural instincts.
And Weymouth says, applicable to each, is that "nature chooses the shortest distance between two points. But that is often not a straight line."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.