Cuban-born architect Alberto Alfonso, AIA, helms his eponymous, 30-person firm from Ybor City, Florida. Alfonso and team have captured significant industry awards and captivated the design world with their thoughtful work. The 16,000 acre Streamsong Resort and Conference Center in Polk County, Florida is one of the most talked-about U.S. hospitality projects of recent years. Meanwhile his team has displayed diversity, prudency, ecological responsibility, and innovation with the Tampa International Airport terminal, Nielsen Media Research campus, Tampa Covenant Church , USF nursing college building and health centers. They are currently at work on the Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement in St. Petersburg, Florida, expected to open in 2017.
Here, Alfonso shares his take on organic collaboration, Florida sunlight, liturgical construction, and his refusal to compromise.
Interior Design: The Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement in St. Petersburg, Florida has tapped you—with your modernist ways—to create a vast space for its collection. How did this partnership come to pass, and what can people expect?
Alberto Alfonso: My client had seen an installation gallery I had completed for Dale Chihuly and just walked in cold one day, announcing he wanted to design a museum for his nationally significant Arts and Crafts collection. He is Italian, and as I have a second home there we sort of understood each other immediately. Sometimes that chemistry just pops. He instantly understood the position that the art is the art and the building is the building, which could be deadly territory when considering the stylistic repercussions of the movement. I had just returned from Vicenza on one of my many Carlo Scarpa runs over the years, and we discussed Castelvecchio and the Canova Gipsoteca and how Scarpa handled the art, presenting it in nontraditional ways. Similarly, our project is a museum where the objects are permanently fixed, so we are designing the object placements with the architecture in very specific ways, in reference to natural light, materiality, and sequence. It is a very intense and collaborative process between Rudy and I; we review every decision together.
ID: What are some of the considerations you take to heart when taking on a high-traffic project—be it retail, industrial, hospitality, or ecclesiastical?
AA: I assume “high traffic” meaning moving large volumes of people frequently, yes? Pragmatically, there is always the consideration of wear and abuse over time when selecting materials. Our work leans toward a direct and clean aesthetic, which if we are not thoughtful can age poorly. I was thrilled to be in our Southwest Airlines terminal recently and it looks like the day we opened almost ten years ago.
Additionally, materials with durability usually are in conflict with acoustical quality in these large and loud spaces. We try to avoid parallel walls and incorporate one receptive surface.
ID: Can you let us know about some of the other projects on your plate that are adding interesting new realms to your practice?
AA: I am constantly amazed at the diverse scales and building typologies in the studio. I’m currently finishing a poured-in-place concrete house that I call the little brother to the museum. Houses are wonderful testing grounds for other work. Following our resort, Streamsong, which you published, we have picked up three boutique hotels in Antiqua, Palm Springs, and Ybor City. I never wanted to do so many of a type, but the settings and artistic boutique vibe of each is quite exciting—an island, a desert, and a historical district.
I’m also designing a large cancer facility that is both rewarding and challenging to implement our standard of process in that building type. Lastly, we are in a competition to design the St. Petersburg Pier, which I had struggled over entering after the difficult and tragic overturn of my friend Michael Malzen’s project last year. We are one of the only firms doing a new proposition.
ID: How does your evident “anthropological savvy” serve the projects worked upon by your firm?
AA: One could say that being Cuban and owning a home in Italy brings a cross-cultural anthropological influence to our work. Our American pace, the temporal aspect to our built environment, consumption of technology and media, and the speed at which we find ourselves processing new information all seem to be counterpointed to my Cuban-Italian models. We seem to be in a period of resistance, subconsciously slowing down our processes and getting to a timeless essence in the work. The economy is roaring back, and we seem to be more careful and wary in the design process, trying to bring an experiential depth and silence to the work. It’s impossible to self-critique your architecture without thinking anthropologically.
ID: With your liturgical projects, these sacred spaces, you’re inevitably dealing with tight financial considerations and durability issues as well as great passion about the resonance of the space itself… What are some of the questions that must be asked to successfully consummate an ecclesiastical project?
AA: Our budgets have been very tight on these projects. This has led to a primary design focus of natural daylight to edit less on materiality and activate the spatial conditions. Tampa Covenant became a thesis in the studio on the use of direct and indirect light to support program and ceremony. Florida light is intense, and needs to be handled carefully or it will blow out a liturgical space like the overexposure of a photograph. As a painter I’ve always been drawn more to the Chiaroscuro handling of light and shadow to support sacred space.
ID: What are some of the common traits among the members of your team? How do you identify an ideal employee to come work with you?
AA: There is a longstanding inner core of the studio that dates back to our education at the University of Florida. My brother, Carlos, and I joined my father and two of my classmates over 30 years ago. My father has since passed, but that core still remains. So there is a Florida philosophy of design, and the way we make buildings has remained true to that ethos. We still rely on model-making and physical hand drawing to develop the projects. We design until the last day of construction. Our employees are very loyal, and stay for long career stints. There is a continuity and clarity in our process that we all share. I would hope that the fire that drove us to become architects still burns in the studio, 30 years later.
ID: What would you say are the great opportunities and responsibilities of individuals working within the design world today?
AA: It is great to see America moving into a higher social consciousness, where good design is celebrated and talked about. Blogs and the Internet have pushed the debate and there is now social dialogue about civic architecture and the qualities of our cities. That said there are still many troubling buildings going up around us that give pause… missed opportunities. So I feel institutions like the AIA and other governance boards have the responsibility to remain relevant in the discourse.
ID: Your firm is recognized for its smart, reverential sense of site-specific design. How do you familiarize yourself with the climate and area-specific needs of a particular project, and how do you guide your staff and collaborators to stay aware of these needs?
AA: “Reverential” is a great way to describe our focus on site and its role in our process. We are constantly looking for the poetic driver to the project, that definer of the soul. Many times that is drawn from the site, whether it is the history of the place as memory, or the physical aspect of the site from a climate and environmental bent. There are obvious grounding principals to site, such as sun and wind that the architecture will always react to. The intangible discoveries are what give the projects their individual, non-formulaic characteristics that keep the work fresh.
ID: How does your life as an exhibiting artist lend itself to your architecture practice? Does having these complimentary disciplines round out your life and times, or keep you balanced?
AA: My father was a gifted artist, and I’ve always had that desire in me. It is an interesting reflection on balancing my life as an architect and a painter. I purposely try not to paint to support the architectural investigations, and let those linkages happen intuitively. I tend to go on long runs of an idea almost as a meditation exercise. My dear friend, the poet Ed Mayes, and I exchange poems and paintings daily for over a year. I just completed over 200 paintings for Streamsong over a two-year period. I feel the painting has enriched the architectural process by pushing me in directions I wouldn’t otherwise creatively have gone.
ID: What inspires you today, and how does this inspiration hearken back or diverge from the inspiration you took at the start of your career?
AA: I think our work is still wildly optimistic, and remains as inspired as when we began. We are now being recognized for our body of work, and our clients now expect a certain something special. There is less convincing required. Charlie Gwathmey told me early, “Never compromise, never bend the knee.” We have always felt like we pushed hard, and drew inspiration from our mentors, our professors, our elders. Additionally, I am always inspired by the talented people I have the privilege to collaborate with daily.