For over four decades distinguished architect Yann Weymouth, AIA, LEED AP, has designed for some of the world’s most prestigious firms and projects, including serving as Chief of Design to I.M. Pei’s Grand Louvre Project in Paris. Weymouth is currently Design Director for HOK in Florida and his most recent project, the new Dali Museum located in St.Petersburg, FL, expresses his architectural mastery. The new Dali Museum opened on 1.11.11 at 1:11. It was designed to provide more space and security for the collection (which is the largest outside of Salvador Dali’s native Spain) than the previous warehouse space. So how does one build a practical house for surrealism? “In the first letter of engagement after we won the competition with our concept, we were given a directive to do four things,” explains Weymouth. “First, protect the collection from potential danger. Second, be wise in how we allocate space and solve programmatic issues. Third, manage the budget very carefully. The museum is a private institution and is continually raising money to pay for the project, so we were not to waste a dime. And fourth, oh by the way, make it spectacular, world class and iconic.”
PROTECTED AND PRACTICAL
The building itself is in part made up of a three-story raw concrete box with 18 inch-thick walls that are heavily reinforced with steel. “To explain this part of the design we called it the ‘treasure box’ because that is what it is,” says Weymouth. The priceless collection is irreplaceable, so it is located on the third level to protect against potential storms and surges. Everything that is critical to the mission of the museum is on the second and third floor. All the public functions, entry, truck dock, community room, theatre, café and museum store are on ground level. Weymouth carefully arranged circulation patterns around an atrium with a central staircase called the “helix” which pays homage to Dali’s fascination with DNA.
One of the challenges of any museum design is to create a space that is worthy of the collection but that does not compete with the objects themselves, and the treasure box fulfills that requirement. The gallery spaces in the Salvador Dali Museum are also very understated with square rooms and a neutral gray palette. Careful lighting draws attention to the art itself, allowing visitors to contemplate one intriguing piece at a time without becoming overwhelmed.
MANAGING RESOURCES CAREFULLY
In addition to the wise use of space, Weymouth and his team were charged with the task of using the budget efficiently. “We did this by prioritizing so that the spaces that are most visible to the public get the most lavish care in terms of detailing,” explains Weymouth. “This does not necessarily mean with the most expensive materials, but with durable materials that provide a lot of bang for the buck in spaces where visitors interact.”
One of the areas that received detailed finishes is the museum’s retail store, a space that affords visitors the opportunity to touch the art and actually bring some of it home with them. “My overall intent was to create a destination store. A place to relax, renew, refuel and explore,” explains Dianne Birmingham, Director of Sales & Merchandising for the Dali Museum. The museum store has hundreds of unique Dali-inspired items, everything from fine reproductions and books to wearable art, Dali fragrances, and home décor accessories. “The main goal is for our merchandise to provide a memory of the Dali experience,” says Birmingham.
“The store is also an important part of the museum’s revenue,” explains Brenda Wawers, an interior designer who worked on the project. “The new retail space is three times the size of the store in the previous location, so the museum spent a lot of time programming the merchandise, and I spent a lot of time figuring out what kinds of containers and shelves we needed for everything. This was especially important because in the new setup 70 percent of the inventory is out on the floor.” In the end, Wawers came up with a standard set of six merchandising components that could be configured in different ways. These combine with custom casework for jewelry and a custom cash wrap to create a well-organized and manageable retail space.
“We wanted the casework to look a part of the design, but not compete with the merchandise,” says Bruce Merenda of Studio B Design Concepts, who designed the custom retail fixtures for the project. “When I was designing the cases I had to take into account Dali’s paintings themselves and the architecture of the building. I wanted the cases to be unique and Dali-esque to pick up on the free form shapes. Yet it had to be understated.” Wilsonart Contract Laminate in Asian Night was specifi ed for the casework. “It has a lot of texture and variety and color to it. The High Pressure Laminate (HPL) is very warm with a terrific gray on gray tone that works well with the palette of the building,” says Merenda. “At one point we had considered a stained wood veneer, but the HPL was a considerable cost savings, which was very important to this project. Plus, laminates hold up well in hightraffic public spaces.” Dali created some very unique jewelry, so the designers wanted a strong jewelry counter with free form shapes and metal mesh to pick up on the building itself. “The Wilsonart HPL works really well aesthetically,” says Merenda, “it is appealing on the surface and the glittery jewelry sparkling out of those cases really pops, which allows you to focus on the product. Especially with all the natural light pouring in from the huge freeform geodesic glass structure.”
Hang on, huge freeform geodesic glass structure?
SPECTACULAR, WORLD CLASS AND ICONIC
Surrealist works feature the element of surprise and unexpected juxtaposition, but not without purpose. Part of what makes the Dali Museum with its vast collection of Salvador Dali’s work so valuable is that it allows people to appreciate that surrealism is more than objects distorted for shock value. It is an expression of a philosophical movement that changed art forever. Many of the European artists displaced during World War I believed that excessive rational thought and bourgeois values had brought war upon the world, so they used the antithesis of the rational as a means of cultural inoculation. This basic premise evolved over time, particularly in the realm of visual arts, to include the idea that by stripping ordinary objects of their normal significance psychological truth will be revealed.
Thus, Weymouth designed a compelling asymmetrical geodesic dome comprised of 1,062 glass triangles of all different sizes. The structure, reminiscent of Weymouth’s hero Buckminster Fuller, is beyond ordinary formal organization and it takes the museum itself beyond its normal significance. “The concrete box is very tough, raw, geometric, and rational, and this is more naturalistic, an almost irrational form of glass,” says Weymouth. “We called it the ‘enigma’ because it bursts out of the box and disrupts it, giving views to the natural world.” The light from the enigma, and the smaller geodesic structure dubbed “the igloo” actually provides a natural clarity to the public spaces in the museum, as well as about 90 percent of the functional areas in the building.
Considering that the collection is safe, the organization is functional and the project was finished on time and $700,000 under budget, the only criteria left to question is whether or not the museum is spectacular, world class and iconic. It certainly is stunning, but in light of the fact that surrealism evolved in the visual arts in order to evoke empathy from the viewer, the only way to know for sure is to experience the Dali Museum in person.
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