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James Turrell


image courtesy Ian Allen / Architectural Lighting

I just returned from attending the Texas Society of Architects Convention and Design Expo in Houston. The event represents an great opportunity to visit with colleagues, catch up with friends, lean some new things about the profession and receive useless swag from vendors whose products I may never actually use. It also represents an opportunity to explore the host city and while in Houston I made a concerted effort to explore the relatively new James Turrell Skyspace on the Rice University Campus.

Turrell is an American artist whose body of work spanning four decades has focused almost exclusively on light. Many of his larger, more recent projects have been "skyspaces", outdoor rooms with a single, framed opening to the sky. Turrell uses this aperture to frame the sky, allowing the visitor to perceive its color, intensity and depth in a way not normally possible. This is intensified by the artificial illumination of the ceiling plane which varies, causing the visitor's perception of the sky to change in unexpected ways.

As little pieces of architecture, these sky spaces are beautiful, but the experience of visiting one is transcendental. “Twilight Epiphany” - the official title of the project at Rice - was completed in 2012 and is one of Turrell's larger installations with two viewing levels. I had visited it before during the day but I wanted to make sure I was able to see it at dawn and dusk when it truly becomes alive. And so on Thursday evening I went there with friends and it was an enjoyable communal experience. But the following morning I returned and had the space and the experience to myself.

At first the oculus of the Skyspace is a black void surrounded by an intense frame of slowly, almost imperceptibly chaining colors. When the sky is first kissed by the light of dawn, there is a period of time where the sky acts as a blank canvas whose perceived hue appears to vary wildly depending on how the ceiling plane is illuminated. This is where the magic occurs.

This was also when I noticed what appeared to be a pulsating star cross diagonally across the oculus. It was too intense to be a star, but its speed and apparent altitude seemed to imply it wasn't a airplane either. As I sat wan continued to focus on the sky, it occurred to me that it might have been the International Space Station that will occasional pass overhead as it orbits the Earth 260 miles above its surface.

It was a beautiful connection between art and science, nature and man, the finite and the infinite, the heavens and the earth. It was also a good reminder of the importance of taking time to sit and look at observe the overwhelming beauty of the world.