Real / surreal

by BONNIE PAU on Apr 1, 2011 in Architecture , Interiors , Lifestyle
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Salvador Dalí’s search for balance between unconsciousness and rationality was a constant theme in his work — and the architectural inspiration for a new museum in St Petersburg

When it comes to designing a home for the masterpieces of Surrealist Salvador Dalí, ‘ordinary’ and ‘modest’ are not words that come to mind — and nor could they be used to describe the truly extraordinary Dalí Museum, a US$30 million project which opened its doors in January on a waterfront site in downtown St Petersburg, Florida.

Perhaps second only to the Dalí Theatre and Museum designed by the artist himself, located in his hometown of Figueres, Catalonia, the new museum houses an impressive 2,140-piece permanent collection of oil paintings, water-colours, sketches and sculptures in two huge, fluid and protruding glass structures which look as if they are freeing themselves out of the seemingly unfinished concrete main body.

“This is a museum for an artist who has changed the world’s view of how we paint and see. Although Surrealism was a relatively short-lived movement in art, Dalí was identified as its leading artist for his entire career. His body of work has affected artists such as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Zhang Xiaogang through the decades,” says Yann Weymouth, HOK senior vice-president and director of Design, who undertook the mission of crafting the 68,000 sq-ft Dalí Museum.

After a visit at the artist’s hometown to add extra dimensions to his inspiration, Weymouth decided that simplicity, efficiency, security and a direct response to purpose should form the groundwork of the architectural concept. “The architecture must be extremely easy to understand. It can be quite adventurous and stimulating, but the circulation pathways should be clear from the moment visitors arrive at the building,” he says. 

“In many of the artist’s works, he juxtaposes a rigorous classical perspective of Cartesian geometries with surprising, flowing, more naturalistic organic forms. The duality between the two is surprising and challenging. It would be a travesty to ‘theme’ the architecture or to copy his work, which the visitor must witness and engage with in the galleries inside.”

In this sense, ‘balance’ became a key word as the concept evolved. Applying HOK’s design approach of “working from the inside-out and the outside-in”, Weymouth organised all programme elements carefully to perform the building’s internal functions, while simultaneously responding to the climate and location by utilising local building techniques, materials and skills. 

“The museum needs to be strong enough to withstand the threat of possible 265 km/hr winds of any future Category 5 hurricane, and it had to be designed to protect the priceless Morse collection of Salvador Dalí’s art within. For me, this meant that the building’s core design needed to be a solid concrete box with half-a-meter thick, heavily steel-reinforced concrete walls to withstand nature’s forces,” Weymouth explains.

In order to provide daylight and to facilitate navigation to art galleries on the third floor, a skylight was added to funnel a soft glow of natural light into the interior.

A dome structure on the Dalí Museum in Figueres, designed by Buckminster Fuller in the 1950s, now comes to life again in the new museum, in the form of a ‘Glass Enigma’ – a 75ft-high geodesic dome on the front of the museum, made up of 1,062 triangular glass panels. HOK used building information modeling (BIM) to visualise the complex geometry and free fluid forms by creating three-dimensional models. By means of computer analysis and digitally-controlled fabrication, each of the glass components is unique, forming a free-flowing volume to enclose the interior spaces.

A soaring concrete spiral staircase imbues energy into the glass atrium, with steps cantilevered from the spiral at its centre. The helical stairway flows at its base into the visitor reception desk — an allusion to Dalí’s fascination with spiral forms in nature and the double helix of DNA.

According to Weymouth, with the completion of Dalí Museum, St Petersburg has become a hotbed of cultural activity, despite its somewhat limited resources compared to cities like London or New York. “City and community collaborated closely with us architects to find how best to site the new museum and to allocate the funding necessary to construct the museum,” he says.

“I hope that the architecture which I, together with our team of architects and engineers have created, helps to draw and inspire and prepare visitors to be challenged and educated about Dalí, his paintings and drawings and their impact.”