Surrealist Architecture: Dalí’s 1958 Crisalida, San Francisco


  • Simon Weir University of Sydney, Australia


A giant cocoon, big enough to walk uphill through, leading you to a serene elevated location was, for decades, one of the least known completed architectural projects of twentieth century surrealism. Designed by Salvador Dalí, this sixty-foot (18m) chrysalis, silken, ribbed, glowing, and breathing, dwelled in San Francisco for a few weeks in the summer of 1958, inside the halls of the convention centre hosting the American Medical Association’s annual conference. Commissioned to promote the anxiolytic medication Miltown, the ascending interior journey through the Crisalida had images on the walls. The two longest inside walls were floor to ceiling, backlit, plexiglass panels, with paintings designed by Dalí and painted by the workshop. Each side depicted four figures journeying from anxiety to serenity, from colloids with holes to flowers and butterflies.

Crisalida intersects with Dali’s mid-career work on resurrection and metamorphosis, and his long interest in biomorphic architecture. This essay will argue that both the interior’s illustrations and the building itself, were explicitly therapeutic, an optimistic rendering of the recuperative effect of Miltown.

Also, by reviewing the 1920s dispute between constructionalist and anti-constructionalist theories of paranoia, I locate Andre Breton on the constructionalist side, and Dalí with Jacques Lacan on the anti-constructionalist side. Constructionalism ably explains spontaneous and automatist artistic acts like Dalí’s earliest surrealist painting and the architectural assemblages Breton applauded. However, the conscious, meticulous craft of Dalí’s 1930s paranoiac-critical paintings, and the intricate fabrication of the Crisalida, required anti-constructionalist paranoia to anchor it to the surrealist project. The Crisalida then stands as an exemplar of an unrecognised branch of architectural surrealism that is free from the procedural limitations of automatism and assemblage, and that can act not only as revelation of the unconscious, but as its cathartic transformation.


Author Biography

Simon Weir, University of Sydney, Australia

Dr. Simon Weir is a designer and Lecturer in architectural design, communications, and history and theory at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on the problems of producing great public architecture. This research has both theoretical and technical arms.

The theoretical arm of this research brings ideas found in art, philosophy and psychology to the problems of architectural design to extend the ambitions and abilities of architects to improve the quality of public buildings and thereby public life. His research on the Classical Greek and Roman architectural custom of “xenia” has been published in RIBA’s Journal of Architecture, and Interstices; research in Object Oriented Ontology has been published in Graham Harman’s journal, Open Philosophy; research on Surrealism has been presented to the International Society for the Study of Surrealism, and published in the Bauhaus-University at Weimar’s journal Horizonte, the journal of the Interior Design Interior Architecture Educator’s Association, and Routledge’s Interior Architecture Theory Reader.