While the art inside St. Petersburg, Florida’s Dali Museum is a draw, the building itself has a unique backstory. A story told best by its lead architect, Yann Weymouth.
By Roni Reino | Photos © The Dali Museum, archives
Head down by the water of downtown St. Petersburg from your luxury hotel, and you’ll notice something is not like it surrounds. The Florida Dali Museum, standing out with its concrete façade and billowing out glass bubble, is home to the world’s largest collection of Salvador Dali’s works outside of Europe. While the works inside are a draw, the building has its own unique and twisted (literally) backstory. Its glass bubble is what designers have called an “enigma,” made up of 1,062 glass triangular pieces – not one the same – and created in homage to the dome atop Dali’s museum in Spain. So who better to tell the tale than its architect, the renowned Yann Weymouth?
When you’re creating a home for some of the world’s most influential works, where do you start?
I did a lot of research, spoke with curators at the museum, and my wife got me books on Dali’s work. I also spent a great deal of time with my uncle, who was a French photographer and had known Dali well in the 1950s. He unveiled a lot of insight to Dali as a real person and his vision.
Dali was highly mathematical. He was brilliant with geometry and was fascinated with psychology. He read Scientific America every day, and much of his work reflected the idea of contrasting the rational with the irrational, the conscience with the unconscious. That seemed a good direction to use as a clue when working on the design.
His work strongly influenced the design, but I hope not in an obvious way. There are no melting clocks or Dali trademarks in sight. It’s a place to honor his work and to do so with an obvious reference would be wrong or trite. He was a serious and important artist and copycatting him would not be correct.
What made you create the “enigma”?
Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, he was one of the great designers of the last century and pioneered the geodesic dome. I found out he was a close friend of Dali’s. Fuller’s style can be seen at the Dali museum in Spain, which has a semi-spherical dome. It seemed natural to take Bucky’s geometric dome further and create the enigma here; this time, we wanted the glass to be a contrasting natural foil to the concrete box (building). The two almost work against each other. It has an almost liquid flowing form and the glass makes the concrete feel more transparent. It’s that contrast that Dali looked for.
Are there any hidden aspects of the design that reflect Dali’s vision?
There’s are so many. One that came about after speaking with the director of the musuem was the Fibonacci curve in the outside garden. It’s a great teaching tool for student groups in the garden and a way to discuss Dali’s love for mathematics.
Another is the stainless-steel handrail on the spiral staircase – it’s one of my favorites. If you hold on to the railing and walk up to the second-floor atrium, never letting go, you’ll end up right back down at the bottom of the stairs, like an endless staircase.
A real hidden gem is in the museum retail store. At the east end in the bookstore section, you’ll find a rock – half-inside, half-outside the building. It looks as if we found the rock and had to build the building around it. It’s just another one of those tiny nods to Dali and contrasting elements.
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