“The future of architecture,” Salvador Dalí famously prophesied, “will be soft and hairy.” The occasion was a self-reported conversation that the ubiquitous surrealist artist had with that other unavoidable figure, Le Corbusier, in 1922. The context was a 1933 essay by Dalí about, well, Dalí, but nominally about modern architecture and food—neither of which, notably, much benefits from hair. “In listening to me,” Dalí was pleased to report, “Le Corbusier had the look of one who had swallowed gall.”
Gall, in the sense of all that is impudently bilious and hard to swallow, is by now often a critical measure of architectural success: The modern future arrives, by definition, disruptively, unpalatably, and as more a matter of vegetables than cake. Now an architectural future has arrived in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the form of a new home for that city’s Salvador Dalí Museum, completed this January by Yann Weymouth, AIA, of HOK. The $32 million building doubles to 68,000 square feet the former museum’s size, arranging the familiar array of café and bookshop and auditorium on the ground floor, administrative offices on second, and (secure on third, above flood levels of the adjacent Tampa Bay), the largest collection of Dalí’s art and artifacts outside of the artist’s own self-designed monographic museum in his hometown of Figueres, Spain.
That museum, which opened in 1974 in the converted ruins of a theater bombed during the Spanish Civil War, features a vast geodesic dome skylight illuminating a quasi-medieval fortress tower—a testament to the mutual admiration between Dalí and his equal-and-opposite in prophecy, Buckminster Fuller. A seemingly melting geodesic sphere, dubbed “Enigma” in honor of a Dalí painting of that title, is the most striking feature of the new Florida museum. Its surface of triangulated glass, hurricane-proof at some 11/2 inches thick, appears to flow in and out of the rectilinear body of the museum, a concrete bunker entered, in the manner of Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art, under a deep overhang at a corner.
Within, the Enigma encloses a pleasantly ellipsoidal 75-foot-high central atrium, at a possible centroid of which arises a graceful and structurally ingenious spiral staircase, which references, PR materials report, the double helix of DNA. The staircase reverses certain tectonic expectations: It is supported only at its end points, features dramatically cantilievering treads, and tops out with a quasi-Borrominian flourish in which the concrete balustrade delaminates from those treads and coils further toward the sky. The third-floor galleries, somewhat more decorous, are illuminated by gratifyingly Corbusian light cannons, which direct and refine the abundant Florida light. The 18-inch thickness of the bunkerish concrete walls protects the valuable collection from Category 5 hurricanes, and in an example of sensible sustainable details found throughout, provides a substantial thermal mass that moderates the mechanical environmental tempering required by St. Petersburg’s heat and humidity.
In American hip-hop, of which nearby Tampa is a notable regional center, the term “alphabet boys” refers to acronymed agencies (such as the ATF and FBI) that take an interest in the not always legally sanctioned work of small-scale urban entrepreneurs. Similarly, there is a standard narrative in the creative cycles of American architecture in which the sensibility and formal language developed by furtive futurists, under pressures of academy and poverty, filter up and out to the work of the corporate alphabet boys: HOK, SOM, KPF, and their ilk.
HOK, masters of the Far East skyscraper and Middle East masterplan, could seem at first a lamentably alphabetic choice to design a museum for an artist who, at first glance, still carries with him an aura of the avant-garde—similar to how, for all his unimpeachable talents, the semi-alphabetical I.M. Pei, FAIA, provided perhaps too much adult supervision in his 1995 design for Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which really should have gone to some architectural rolling stones. It would be nice to imagine that, here, the subversion of a Salvador Dalí had crept deeply into the ostensibly middlebrow manners of an alphabet boy and resulted in, well, something special.
Architect and writer Thomas de Monchaux was the inaugural recipient of the Winterhouse Award for Design Writing & Criticism. He teaches at Columbia University.
This sort of narrative would do a disservice both to the work of Dalí and, in this particular project at least, to HOK. Over his long career, Dalí perfected not the eyeball-slicing or cerebrum-stimulating Surrealism of his earliest contemporaries, Luis Buñuel and Marcel Duchamp, but a deeply palatable body of technically perfect, aesthetically accessible works, whose portentous and poster-ready combination of cheese and bathos found its way straight into the heart of global bourgeois taste. Compared to that, HOK is the edgy one in this partnership.
What adds the edge here is Weymouth’s seemingly casual choice to apply to the building versions of the high-end finishes and material vocabulary that we associate with architects of either solemn spirituality, from Tadao Ando to Peter Zumthor; or technocratic purism, from Norman Foster to Renzo Piano. The smooth poured-in-place concrete walls feature the familiar array of rough ridges and gridded plug-dots we recall from a Kahn museum; the somberly high-tech powder-finished panels and vents and glazing gadgets send us to Foster’s British Museum.
To see these precise formal languages, and their very particular aura of associations, show up here within the context of Florida and Dalí profoundly and subversively alienates them from their vocabularies of signifiers and signs, in a way that is truly—and debatably beyond the capacity or intention of artist and architect—Surreal.
But is it soft? Is it hairy? Certainly soft, not in the almost-now-retro blobbishness of the tessellated glazing, but in the cosy and forgiving nature of the art it encloses. And certainly hairy, not in any sense of ostentatiously risky bravura, but in elegantly celebrating the rather twist-and-turn story of patronage and collection that brought that art to Tampa/St. Petersburg, known both as the Strip-Club Capital of America and as God’s Waiting Room.
The result is a project that is irreproducible in its alignment of intention and serendipity, in which, perhaps for once, the biomorphic and embodied, the corporeal and the corporate are all perfect for each other.