James Turrell’s Latest Project Is An Architectural Pavilion That Frames An Artwork—And An Artwork That Accomplishes An Architectural Feat.
A flat expanse of sprawl and scrubland spread around a hazy downtown—one populated by Flavins, Warhols, Twomblys, and the best Rothkos on the planet—Houston is an unlikely confluence of low-lying landscape and high-flying art. That’s due in part to the intercessions of civic patroness Dominique de Menil, who over the last century inspired the development of a remarkable local constellation of collections and commissions. Cultural houses that she launched or promoted include her own eponymous gallery (its original building the first major solo act by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, its latest the breakthrough gig for emerging Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee), the Museum of Fine Art (with buildings by Mies van der Rohe, Rafael Moneo, Hon. FAIA, and soon, Steven Holl, FAIA), and the Rothko Chapel.
The latest star in that constellation, at one end of a long quadrangle at Rice University, is by the artist James Turrell (with Thomas Phifer and Partners as assisting architects). Titled Twilight Epiphany, it’s a 118-foot-square earthwork with grassy bermed walls enclosing a near-cubical bench-lined atrium, 28 feet square. Those berms form a truncated pyramid that slopes up at an unvarying 19 degrees towards a 72-foot-square white canopy that, perched on just eight 6-inch-diameter steel-tube columns paired at its corners, seemingly hovers 21 feet up in the air. That canopy is punctured at its center by a 14-foot-square skylight—the signature element of Turrell’s “skyspace” works, this being his 73rd.
It was through de Menil that Turrell first met Suzanne Deal Booth. A Rice graduate and former de Menil intern, Booth became Turrell’s studio assistant, working on an early skyspace at Queens, N.Y.’s MoMA PS1 museum. Booth’sfinancial support would later enable Rice to commission this new $6 million project, which went through years of gestation and a year of construction and calibration. The founder of Friends of Heritage Preservation, a conservation-focused charitable group based in Los Angeles, Booth has, along with her husband, financier David G. Booth, continued de Menil’s cultural philanthropy.
Dawn and dusk at the Rice skyspace see some 244 LED fixtures lining parapets at the top of the berms illuminating the underside of the canopy with a moody sequence of hues. Those hues are programmed to vary over the year with the length and luminosity of sunrise and sunset. Viewed from within the atrium enclosure (where pew-like benches of mottled Texas Pink Granite accommodate 44 visitors), or from the 7-foot-wide channel at the top of the berms (where cast-concrete benches of similar profile seat another 76), the effect of this light show is uncanny. One’s visual perception is not so much that the LED array is changing the color of the canopy, but that the sky beyond is itself impossibly shifting toward complementary shades, cycling through bruised purples and eschatological greens, gradually and suddenly darkening and lightening, while the canopy itself remains a mysterious constant.
Turrell got his start in the 1960s Los Angeles art scene with the Light and Space movement, which included artists Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler. His early work featured installations of screens and partitions that regulated light from existing windows and fixtures—as much about the impurities of architecture, perhaps, as the purities of light. His ongoing magnum opus is a complex of Earth Art interventions around Roden Crater, a volcanic formation near Flagstaff, Ariz. Turrell has designed skylit spaces with far fewer bells and whistles than are to be found at Rice, as at the understated room installed in 2000 at the nearby Houston Live Oak Friends Meeting House. Then there’s The Light Inside (1999), a high-tech installation in the tunnel between two wings of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, in which lights embedded in translucent glass partitions, framing a walkway between knife-edged plaster cycloramas, produce a scintillating illusion of seeming reflection and indeterminate space. In the Rice project, the natural and artificial combine in both resonance and tension.
Much of Turrell’s work can be understood as Art rendered in the medium of Architecture—an encounter not only between nature and artifice, but between different modes of artifice. Like related work by Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson, it transcends conventions of architectural criticism. Nevertheless, Twilight Epiphany has some lessons for architects, such as the effort behind seeming effortlessness. “It takes a lot of architecture to be barely architecture,” observes Rice University School of Architecture dean Sarah Whiting of Turrell’s work. “The more ephemeral something is, the more work goes into it.” Eric Richey, who was project architect for Thomas Phifer in assisting Turrell with the realization of the design, confirms this: “We did some gymnastics. It was a lot of steel, a lot of rebar, and an amazingly stout structure, but the goal was to get it all as slender as possible.” That hovering canopy tapers from almost 3 feet in depth to a knife-edge 5/16-inch strip of steel at its edges, its PVC-membrane hip roof and flat stucco soffit enclosing a steel frame in which tapering cantilevers extend every 4 feet from 2-foot-5-inch-deep members spanning between those hard-working corner columns.
Throughout the project, seams and joints achieve remarkably fine tolerances and are deployed in ingenious ways. Examples include drainage carefully channeled between the tightly spaced stone pavers of the atrium floor, or the deployment of 2-inch reveals where the high backs of the stone benches meet the atrium walls to provide outlets and returns for that most essential of building systems in Houston: air conditioning. Those atrium walls contain 12 invisibly embedded audio speakers for musical performances and sound installations, and are tilted a single imperceptible degree back from vertical in order to suppress what would otherwise be a fluttering echo effect.
“It’s a teaching tool to have on campus,” Whiting says. “You can look over there at that structure that looks very simple, and look at how they pulled that off—a very straightforward example of something very complicated. You can explain it’s not just a piece of chipboard floating in the air.” She adds, “Houston’s hard on buildings. You need things to be well made to pull off elegance, so there’s a local legacy of technologically sophisticated architecture in the service of modern design.”
Part of that legacy is nearby, in Phifer’s own 2009 Brochstein Pavilion, a small student center wrapped in delicately Miesian glass and steel that aligns across a shared quadrangle with Turrell’s project. (A Phifer hallmark is careful management of daylight, which has made him a good assistant and neighbor both.) Phifer’s project is distantly visible from Turrell’s. While one is a work of architecture and the other a work of art—insofar as this distinction is serviceable—the two pavilions nevertheless address each other. Both are square in plan and white in color, and resolve at their perimeters toward crisply cantilevered canopies.
The Brochstein Pavilion features an overhead matrix of light scoops and screens that diffuse and dapple daylight. “It’s an interesting dialogue between the two,” observes Richey, who worked on both projects. “You’re letting light in through a canopy, but it [the Brochstein Pavilion] has that filtered light that is similar to light through trees, while the Turrell light is focused.” Both projects provide a tart counterpoint to the stately arcades and ponderously historicist brickwork that constitute much of the Rice campus, and both provide intimate indoor-outdoor gathering spaces in a landscape that remains stubbornly automotive in scale. “It adds an outdoor room, developing an interesting typology from a cloister or a courtyard,” Whiting says of the Turrell pavilion. “You are enclosed, without being closed off.”
Turrell’s enclosure can be entered by two aligned portals that recall the similar incision-into-hillside detail at the Tomb of Agamemnon in Mycenae—by way of Philip Johnson’s reinterpretation of that ancient archetype for his semi-subterranean art gallery in New Canaan, Conn. Turrell’s portals are flanked by narrow staircases leading to the parapet-level seating, their framing walls as well as a broad, lintel-like panel all rendered in the same clean white stucco as the atrium interior and canopy underside. The result is rigorous. But it is also—for an artifact that, through its skylight, wrestles to ground an infinite axis mundi between heaven and earth—exceedingly well mannered.
Some architectural observers might like to see all those cosmic forces wrapped up a little less neatly. The tidy combination of tasteful white-walled modernism and structural bravura recalls Berthold Lubetkin’s 1934 Penguin House for the London Zoo—and like that magnificent folly, Turrell’s structure has a strident profile, a presence that sometimes risks the object becoming a monument to the visual experience for which it is merely the means.
And yet, at dusk and dawn, such contentions fade. Perhaps the structure’s most brilliant gesture is in deploying that vanishingly fine edge around not only its central skylight, but also around the canopy’s outside circumference. By meeting the outer world exactly as it meets the world within, the artwork stages a generous and startling inversion of public and private, sacred and profane, high and low. It’s a turning-inside-out that, all along that razor’s edge, somehow turns all the sky into a skylight, somehow shelters its entire expanse—enlisting and transforming, to its furthest horizon, all of that low-lying landscape into high-flying art.