New Salvador Dalí Museum blends practicality, artistry

The best architecture is always a blend of art and science, of designing a building that will remain standing and look good while doing so. In the case of the new Dalí Museum, the blend is seamless and brilliantly conceived. Repetitive forms, especially spirals, are used throughout the museum's grand first floor for a subliminal reference to Dalí's fascination with them and his use of them in his art.

The first directive of architect Yann Weymouth, senior vice president in the Tampa office of HOK, an international firm, was to make a home for the world-class art collection that is impervious to hurricanes. But ignoring the superb views of its downtown waterfront site would have been a travesty.

Weymouth's response to the dueling imperatives was to create a three-story box made of 18-inch-thick concrete and miles of reinforcing steel for protection. For illumination and visual interest, he cleaved the monolith with an amorphously shaped glass structure he named the Glass Enigma. The solution is fabulously eccentric in true Dalí tradition.

The Glass Enigma is an homage to Buckminster Fuller's famous geodesic domes of the 1950s, one of which crowns Dalí's Teatre-Museu in Figueres, Spain. Weymouth's is of a new generation, designed using computer algorithms that allow freedom from the old symmetry. The technology is so new that it's the largest and most complex example of its application in the United States.

He has described its irregular formation as a giant water drop rolling from its 75-foot perch on the roof and frozen as it succumbs to gravity. It's formed from 1,062 triangular glass panels, 1 1/2 inches thick, each made with three layers of glass, no two exactly alike, and held together in a steel grid. The glass is insulated, reinforced, laminated and tempered but certified only for a Category 3 hurricane, which is acceptable because the Enigma does not cover any walls in the galleries, archives or the systems that keep the art at controlled temperatures, so it would not affect those core parts of the museum if it were damaged in a storm.

Landscape architect Phil Graham of Graham-Booth Landscape Architecture designed the grounds lush with flowering shrubs and trees interspersed with outcroppings of Florida limestone slabs that suggest the primordial rocks of Dalí's Catalonian homeland that he constantly painted into his landscapes.

Visitors enter the museum through a grottolike area on a walkway that bisects a small pool and is level with it to suggest a sense of walking through the water. A wall has been transformed into a vertical garden of Florida plants that sprout, along with small fountains of water, from a large artificial stone that seems to hold up a corner of the building. (It doesn't.) Misters create a slightly foggy atmosphere.

Museum director Hank Hine named the Avant Gardens and says the grotto entrance is intended as a transition "from the ordinary world to the surreal."

The ground floor is a grand, multitasking space that houses a gift store, admissions and an information area plus a cafe, 100-seat theater and the Raymond James community room.

The Enigma's full effect is seen on this floor. It soars 75 feet above the first level, capping the roof in an oval that references Dalí's use of eggs in his art. It balloons from an exterior wall, providing a huge window onto the waterfront, then torques into itself, suggesting movement and, finally, rest.

LED lights — the kind used on airport runways — are embedded in the concrete floor beginning at the entrance, forming a spiral that curves through the museum store and to the admissions and information desk. It, too, is curved, nestled at the base of the spectacular freestanding concrete staircase curling 60 feet into the air, mimicking a DNA strand. The spirals and other repetitive forms Weymouth uses link the various spatial areas with a visual harmony.

The heart of the museum is its galleries on the third floor of the building, elevated above the 100-year flood plane and tested to withstand a Category 5 storm. Along with the storage vault and climate-control systems, they are windowless rectangles on the north and south sides that can be sealed by metal roll-down shutters. But the galleries aren't dark, grim caves. They spread over about 9,000 square feet on one side and 6,000 square feet on the other and soar 18 feet, connected by an open, oval walkway.

The Enigma, in its journey down, bumps out at this point into another huge oval that forms a third-floor viewing area on the landing.

From it, the waterside grounds are fully visible, another homage to Dalí's fascination with science and mathematics. The east terrace re-creates the golden rectangle and golden spiral, discovered in ancient times and used by artists through the centuries as two of the most perfect spatial ratios through history.

Further on, a gate between two stone "sentries" leads to a labyrinth made of podocarpus shrubs modeled after the one at Chartres Cathedral in France, crowned at its center by a cypress tree.

Connecting the Dalí Museum and adjacent Mahaffey Theater are an open lawn, broad lawn steps and a grove of crepe myrtle trees. A large terrace on the north side overlooks the theater and greensward. It all pulls the two buildings together as a "campus," a mini-Lincoln Center as someone suggested. But this one has a water view.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

The Dalí Museum

1 Dalí Blvd., on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront at the southern end of Bayshore Drive SE.

Admission

Adults $21; seniors, military, police and firefighters, $19; children 13 to 18 and students over 18 with valid ID, $15; children 6 to 12, $7; and children 5 and younger, free. Admission is $10 after 5 p.m. Thursdays.

Hours

10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday

10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday

Noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday

Docent tours are offered daily. Check at the admissions desk for times.

Volunteering

The most visible volunteers at any museum are the docents, trained by the museum staff as knowledgeable tour guides of the museum collection. The January docent training class for the Dalí Museum is full with a long waiting list, so you'll have to wait for the next class, but there are other volunteer opportunities right now. You can get a volunteer application by e-mailing Nichole Nathan at nnathan@thedali.org.

Museum membership

Probably the biggest benefit to Dalí Museum membership during its first year, given its newness, is unlimited visits. Another plus: Every member, regardless of level, gets 10 percent discounts on museum purchases (store or online) and community room rentals. Members are invited to members-only events and exhibition previews (not an issue this year since the exhibition won't change). Members also receive free or discounted admission to curator-led tours (as opposed to the always free docent tours), art films and other activities. With family membership, you receive two membership cards. Membership prices ranges from $40 to $1,200.

Zodiac group

This is a special membership category for those wanting to help organize volunteer, social and educational activities and events. Zodiac members receive free or discounted invitations to many sponsored events. An individual membership is $70, and a family membership is $110. For details, go to thedali.org/zodiacs.

New Salvador Dalí Museum blends practicality, artistry 01/07/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 9, 2011 8:01am]

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