The architect as artist

Alberto Alfonso’s latest project allows him to showcase his skill as an architect and his talent as a painter


Talk about a creative assignment.


On a 16,000-acre site in central Florida, architect Alberto Alfonso is about to design a 300,000-square-foot, five-star resort – and create tiny watercolor paintings for each of its 228 rooms. He’s also been commissioned to develop larger oil paintings for the resort’s public spaces. “I’ll do as many as I can in a year and a half,” the Florida architect and artist, best known for his design for Tampa International Airport’s Airside C Terminal, says.


He’s had plenty time to practice at his easel. For the past two years, he’s been painting daily, working to illuminate poems by his friend Ed Mayes. By 10 AM each day, Mayes sends Alfonso a dense, three-dimensional poem, as long as 40 lines and footnoted. In return, Alfonso will read it, sleep on it that night and begin painting the next morning. Once he’s finished, he’ll take a picture of it and e-mail it back to Mayes. “It’s really invigorating,” Alfonso says. “It takes me 30 minutes to do, and then when I’m working, I’m consciously thinking about architecture, but I’m also thinking about Keats and Byron.”


As he designs the Streamsong Resort in central Florida, he’ll also be creating the spaces in which his work will hang. On four floors of guest rooms, each dedicated to a season of the year, he’ll hang a painting specific to winter, spring, summer or fall, with a poem by Mayes to accompany it. Thematically, poetry and painting will work within the framework of an ode to the tree.


That’s because Streamsong’s acreage is being carved out of a larger 250,000-acre wooded tract owned by the Mosaic Mining Company, which began extracting phosphorous from the soil there in the ‘60s. Since the mining ceased, nature’s taken over. “They’re all about reclamation now,” Alfonso says. “The resort is about nature recaptured. There are 100-foot-tall dunes there, and large bodies of water. It’s got the best bass fishing in the country.”


Plans call for two golf courses, one designed by Bill Core/Ben Crenshaw and another by Tom Doak, as well as a clubhouse, three restaurants and a spa, the latter all designed by Alfonso. He’s also designed the main resort, six stories high, to be built of Corten weatherizing steel with touches of native Florida cypress and an abundance of glass. “There’s going to be floor-to-ceiling glass in every guest room, and no curtains,” he says.  “Each room will have 12 louvers measuring three feet by nine feet. You can shut them all down to black the room out completely if you want.”


The building itself is to be a metaphor for a fallen tree reclaimed and given new life. “It’s about how nature retakes things,” he says. “When a living tree falls, it decays and becomes another kind of eco-system.” That’s a reference to the site’s history, biology and transformative nature. The phosphate once mined there is the result of its former underwater history, where once-prevalent fossilized sea life was transformed into the phosphorous that Mosaic mined there.


His design for the resort takes its cues from the surrounding forest. The building’s lower levels evoke the feel of a cypress tree’s underwater roots, and as it moves up vertically, its window louvers emphasize the verticality of a grove of timber. “It’s like a canopy of trees,” he says. “It all plays into an organic architecture.”


As if his hands weren’t full already, the University of South Florida Polytechnic has named Alfonso its executive in residence and interim program development director for architecture and design. He and Mayes are also about to embark on a new series of daily poems and paintings. Its focus, appropriately enough, will look at the language of poetry and the structure of architecture. “And vice versa,” the artist says.


By J. Michael Welton