Openings USA

Saved from Florida’s floods only to drown in architecture

The art collection in the new Salvador Dalí Museum in St Petersburg is overcome by Yann Weymouth’s “crystal nightmare”

The new Salvador Dalí Museum St Petersburg, Florida by Yann Weymouth of Tampa architectural firm HOK

Officially inaugurated in surrealist style at 11:11 on 11/1/11 by the Infanta Cristina, duchess of Palma de Mallorca, the new Salvador Dalí Museum in tropical St Petersburg, Florida, houses the world's most comprehensive collection of works by the artist outside of Spain. On that day, a man wearing a large snail hat led a parade of drummers, who were followed by a phalanx of pirates, past shimmering sea water and vibrant palm trees, while wild green parakeets fluttered in the air.

Since the 1970s, the collection was held in a museum where it suffered a tormented life. As the curators tell us, in the old museum (a fragile structure indeed) Dalí’s work had to be hastily moved to some safer ground each time there was the menace of a major storm—not a rare event in this Caribbean part of Florida. We can easily imagine the mess, as museum personnel ran to safety with paintings under their arms, ahead of a thundering sky—a pandemonium that, actually, Dalí the surrealist might have thoroughly enjoyed.

Fortunately (or not), the collection is now said to be safe in its new bunker-like abode, cracked open by a frozen lava of glass that spills to the ground around the museum, mimicking, as it were, some dilated Dalí landscape. The architect curiously christened the dome “The Enigma”, a name one would think better suited to a silent De Chirico than the noisy Salvador Dalí (even if the name was borrowed from a 1929 Dalí painting).

Inside the concrete block, dominating the central hall, and swirling up to the “melting” glass dome above, a giant DNA-like structure (Dalí loved DNA spirals we are told) begins as a staircase and ends, just short of touching the Enigma, as an immediately recognizable thinning and twisted moustache of concrete.

You could hardly find anywhere else in the world, or in history for that matter (maybe with the exception of the 18th century Jean-Jacques Lequeu) a more effective “architecture parlante”, if only this exuberant museum, bound to safeguard and perpetuate Dalí’s œuvre, was not speaking so loudly in Dalí’s name as to cover and replace the artist’s own voice.

After having ploughed through such a delirious space, thundering with dubious taste, one can legitimately wonder if the visitor, overwhelmed by the architect’s ego, and blinded by the glare of the cascading dome, has any energy left to start searching for the art he came to see, hidden and dwarfed in the remote folds of the bunker. Threatened by the floods of storms in the old museum, Dalí’s work is now drowned in the architecture of the new one.

One can agree or not with Dalí’s surrealist extravaganzas, but the architecture of the museum supposed to house his work cannot pretend to replace the artist’s collection with its own Disneyland outrage. If I.M. Pei evidently copied Ivan Leonidov’s 1929 glass pyramid for the Moscow Palace of Culture, his former assistant Yann Weymouth has turned it into a crystal nightmare, with all due respect for the bold engineering innovation in geodesic triangulation (pioneered by Buckminster Fuller) this construction called for.

The writer, Dr Danilo Udovicki-Selb, is an architecture critic for our sister paper, Il Giornale dell’Archiettura and professor at the University of Texas at Austin

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22 Feb 11
21:37 CET


The galleries at the Dali are quite prominent. And the artwork expertly presented. That there is an interesting staircase, beautiful vistas, and a great garden all provide pleasure and should not upset even the most iconoclastic of critics.

11 Feb 11
15:31 CET


gil, what you said is so true,they ruined the moma in nyc.

9 Feb 11
21:28 CET


Excellent article. It is unfortunate that the trend with buildings designed and created to house our cultural treasures seem to be headed towards boring and uninspired boxes or monstrosities that don't serve the work inside. Of course there are exceptions, but it seems they are becoming less and less.

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