Leonardo DaVinci, the great Renaissance inventor, artist and visionary once wrote ‘Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.’ Nearly 600 years from DaVinci’s birth, a modern interpretation of the Renaissance man, who encapsulates those same artistic values, emerges in the form of Cuban-born, Tampa-based architect and artist, Alberto Alfonso.
Alberto, a renowned and award-winning architect known for his well-honed ability to bring a resonating soulfulness to every architectural project his firm (Alfonso Architects, Inc.) has signed its name to, is a bit of a delightful anachronism in today’s modern design world. A world of sterile digital signals reigned by computers and graphic design programs which have sadly created a chasm between the intimate, almost spiritual, relationship between the designer and his design vision. Alberto embraces the technology (he’s a visionary after all) that bring his projects to life, but before that first mouse click occurs or the furious taps of a keyboard echo through his studio, he draws out his vision on paper.
Drawing and painting his architectural visions are his first steps-long before sitting down in front of a computer. He strongly believes that we are all creators and that there’s a certain spirituality associated with the act of creating. His architectural projects, works of art birthed from an exquisite play of shadow and light, are potent testimony to that fact that true beauty and art must first emanate from the soul. When asked about how he creates the unmistakable aura of spirituality in his designs, he replies, “I am a man of faith, and my beliefs permeate my work both consciously and subconsciously. I will always be drawn to the intricate balance of shadow and light to create sacred spaces because it is the mystery of the unknown that inspires participation. Kahn said that “light is sacred” and I believe that in both painting and architecture, that the play of light has the potential to connect us to divinity.”
“Tampa Covenant “(Architectural project by Alfonso Architects.)
Even as we speak during this interview he thoughtfully draws out the relationship between himself and his siblings on paper. Slowly and deliberately creating a visual illustration of the warm and close relationship he shares with his two brothers. All the while he continues to talk as his drawing takes shape. His love of family and tradition is evident in his words and works. His father Carlos Alfonso, Sr., the famed Cuban architect, fled Cuba with his family to start a new life in the United States. Moving first to Miami, Florida and subsequently setting familial roots in Tampa. When talking about his late father, Alberto’s eyes sparkle with pride and love, and then a bittersweet moment as he recounts working on a recent project, Airside/Terminal C at Tampa International Airport (his father was on the team of architects that originally designed the award-winning Tampa International Airport.) – a beautiful project that stands as a loving tribute to his father. Alberto’s mother has also been an integral influence. As he relates, ”She’s the great loving and fun support of our family, the biggest cheerleader of all her sons. We are a very close family and my mother believes in unconditional equality between her sons. She, of course, is thrilled that we all worked together with my father and she continues to be the maternal center of our family.”
Tampa International Airport Terminal C/Airside C (Architectural project by Alfonso Architects.)
As he continues to talk about his family, not once does the pen lift from the paper – his words and drawing coming together to create a story that words alone seem so woefully inadequate to describe. Alberto’s artistic spirit guides the movement of the pen and later the DaVinci brushes he carefully swirls in pots of richly pigmented Russian watercolor paints as we continue our conversation.
Friend and fellow architect, Santiago Calatrava, figures prominently in Alberto Alfonso’s artistic renaissance. About a year ago, Alberto and Santiago had a conversation that would deeply impact Alberto’s artistic life. After a fundraiser, both men met in their hotel lobby to discuss the arts. As Alberto recounts, “Santiago brought down a bag filled with his art supplies. We sat in the lobby and talked for three hours about Matisse, Rodin and several other great artists.” And while Alberto did draw and paint for his architectural projects, Santiago later pointed out, ‘you have to paint every day…it is a discipline’. Those words resonated with Alberto. Fate also played a small part in the birth of the daily painter. Two days after his conversation with Santiago, Alberto received a call from poet, close friend and Cortona, Italy neighbor, Edward Mayes.
“St. Francis and the Angel in Church of San Francesco Cortona, Italy”. (Painting by Alberto Alfonso that graces his studio office.)
Mayes was contacting Alberto about a new personal endeavor he was about to embark on. After a bit of a dry spell, Ed was moved to write a poem a day, and Alberto replied to him, “If you do a poem a day, I’ll do a painting a day”. Thus began the intertwined journey of the painter and the poet. For 11 months the two communicated via email. Ed would send the poem, Alberto would interpret the poem as the spirit moved him. He held to the boundaries he had set: to use watercolors as his medium; to paint within a four inch by four inch square (Later works evolved into larger formats and mediums.) and to paint for only 20 minutes each morning. Setting those boundaries gave him the freedom to paint without the pressure for the paintings “to be great, bad or good…[the act of painting] was all about discovery”.
As their already close friendship deepened through this artistic endeavor in which each bared their soul, a collection of moving poems and paintings was birthed. In December 2010, Alberto and Ed held their first US exhibit, to tremendous admiration from the art community, at the Moreon Center for the Arts in Saint Petersburg, Florida. I remember the exhibit’s opening night: beautiful music set the mood for the poems and paintings that made my soul smile, cry and swell with love.
“Water”. Painting by Alberto Alfonso and Poem by Edward Mayes from the “Painting the Poem, Poeming the Paint” collection.
Dale Chihuly, the greatly respected glass artist, entrusted Alberto with the creation of the Chihuly Collection building in downtown Saint Petersburg, Florida. Friends for over six years; the two came together to create an intimate gallery to showcase Chihuly’s stunning glass sculptures such as the “Mille Fiori” pictured below. At one point in the project there was an unexpected design obstacle – the space they were to use for the collection was reduced. Alberto didn’t let that hinder his vision for the building. He took the smaller space he was given to work with and created an architectural masterpiece, all the while reassuring his friend that it would all turn out well. And it did. I commented to Alberto that although the Chihuly Collection building is quite a small space that it didn’t feel small. The experience was airy, and visually enticing. It felt just right. And in pure Alberto fashion he commented back, “ It’s interesting, in fact we’ve been told that the experience is so wonderful that visitors like to come back for more. It’s like a good dessert, where it’s just enough to satisfy but not to overwhelm.”
Dale Chihuly’s Mille Fiori installation at the Chihuly Collection in Saint Petersburg, Florida.
As the interview draws to a close, I’m invariably transported back to a moment in which Alberto Alfonso the architect and the artist reached iconic status in my eyes. During the interview an extraordinarily important architectural partner called about a project that he and Alberto were working on – one that had run up against some design issues from outside forces. Alberto was passionate as he defended his reasons for leaving a design element in place. The room came alive as I saw his spirit rise to the battle to maintain the wholeness and integrity of his design vision as he boldly replied to the other party, “The minute you compromise [on your ideals], you’re finished”. I didn’t understand at first. I thought it would certainly be easier and less stressful to compromise – after all we are taught to compromise at an early age. No sooner had that thought crossed my mind than I looked up to see Alberto motioning to me to follow him. We worked our way down to the building’s darkened, basement floor. An architectural model lay in the center. Alberto flipped a few switches, and the model lit up – slowly coming to life. At that moment, tears welled in my eyes; my throat was tight with emotion – it was a spiritual experience seeing such beauty. I finally understood why he fought so hard. Any changes to the design would destroy the beauty he had so carefully created. I later asked Alberto about this and he eloquently remarked, “If I were to ever compromise, there would be no going back. There would be no way to undo that single act. I have created a consistent body of work. It is an organic process in that every project is connected to its predecessor, so there is neither room nor reason to falter in my convictions. I ask myself with each project: What would my father say? What would my professor and friend, the late Charles Gwathmey say? I need to be able to hear their answers in my mind, and they hold me to an exemplary standard of architecture. “
I, for one, I’m happy that this modern day Renaissance man will not compromise his architecture nor his art. And, you know, I think if DaVinci were alive today he’d feel the same way.
Alberto Alfonso’s architectural endeavors are given great attention in author Saxon Henry’s book, Four Florida Moderns