By Molly Glentzer, Houston Chronicle
May, 6, 2012
Ever twirl yourself dizzy as a kid, with your neck craned toward the sky?
That's how I felt recently watching a sunset light show from inside the new James Turrell Skyspace at Rice University. But it was clouds moving — not me.
I sat on a granite bench inside a grassy pyramid whose open ceiling hovers like a spaceship, viewing the advancing dusk through a square oculus in the ceiling's center. The sky also drifted by in a long horizontal line between the ceiling and the upper deck.
A breeze blew softly through the interior of the monumental, site-specific installation.
I thought I heard a vibration, what spiritual types might call the hum of the universe, although maybe that was just my imagination. Things get pretty vivid in this meditative environment. Mainly, it was just silence punctuated by birdsong, the intermittent chatter of passersby and an occasional passing airplane during a 40-minute light show that set the ceiling aglow.
Pink faded to purple, blue, green, white, yellow, orange, the hues and shadows intensifying as darkness set.
The Skyspace opens in mid-June, giving Houston its third major piece by Turrell, a visionary American artist who turns 69 Sunday. Shunning the physicality of paint and sculpture, he was among the pioneers of the Light and Space movement in the late 1960s.
Houston's Turrell trinity includes "The Light Inside" tunnel at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, created in 1999; and the Live Oak Friends Meeting House, which opened in 2001.
Turrell's epic Roden Crater project, under construction since 1979 in an extinct volcanic cinder cone near the Grand Canyon, has eclipsed his other works in notoriety. But the Rice Skyspace, one of 73 scattered across 25 countries, is unlike anything he's done before: It's uniquely engineered for acoustics.
"This is a bold statement. Frankly, you don't do this just for your campus. You do it because of the city and the community," said Rice President David Leebron. "The Meeting House is great, but you've got to know when to go and who to call. You want to see this, absent some special functions, come on.
Leebron was awed by a recent light-show preview. "At one point in there the sky looked positively green. And I'm pretty sure the sky was not green. It kind of heightens your sensibilities. So when you walk out, your sense of looking at the environment has been altered. It seems more vibrant.
"All of a sudden the Methodist building looks great," he said, looking toward the top-lit skyscrapers of the Texas Medical Center — none of which are visible from inside the space.
This is the pinnacle of the public art program Leebron initiated shortly after he arrived at Rice a decade ago. "We want people to think of Rice as a place for the arts," he said.
Jaume Plensa's "Mirror," a pair of monumental sculptures, was recently installed near Herring Hall. Works by nine other artists are also on permanent display.
Although the schedule isn't yet set, the Skyspace will be open six days a week, with 40-minute light shows at sunrise and sunset. It accommodates about 120 viewers at a time, with seats for 44 inside and 76 on the upper deck, although the lights can be seen from all around.
The Skyspace sits 92 feet from the Shepherd School of Music's Alice Pratt Brown Hall. The distance keeps that building and others out of view from the Skyspace floor. That's important for reasons that are painfully clear now in Dallas, where the Nasher Sculpture Center and its architect are suing a new neighbor, Museum Tower, for ruining the view from their Turrell installation. (The skyscraper's mirrorlike windows also cast blazing light on the Nasher's gardens and other artworks.)
But at Rice, 92 feet is also close in a good way. One day each week will be reserved for performances that can be set to programmed light shows. Early in the planning phase, when Rice's art committee and Turrell settled on that location, the university seized the opportunity to create not just a dynamic work of art but a collaborative performance space.
Shepherd School dean Robert Yekovich approached Turrell about it during a dinner, and the concept took further shape after Yekovich learned the artist had once worked with avant-garde composers.
"We asked him to make it friendly to acoustical instruments — string quartets and woodwind trios, for example — so we'd have the option of doing things in the space," Yekovich said.
And because the Shepherd School has a digital music lab, he told Turrell it would be even better if the space could also accommodate electronic music composition and performance.
Voila — the Skyspace walls are slanted to maximize the resonance of acoustical instruments and each wall contains three invisible speakers connected to racks of hidden equipment, allowing composers to work from their laptops in the space.
Yekovich anticipates a concert series, maybe on Tuesday nights, starting next fall. Professor Kurt Stallman composed an eight-minute digital piece that was performed at the Skyspace dedication on Friday.
The Skyspace isn't just for romantics. Its exacting proportions offer a total geek-out for the mathematically and scientifically inclined.
Turrell earned his degree in perceptual psychology at Pomona College in California in 1965, but he also studied math, geology and astronomy.
Rice Public Art program director Molly Hipp Hubbard describes Turrell as "very evolved" but also down to earth.
"He's the artist; he draws it. Then we had to put it into architectural drawings — and 50,000 hours later, it's extraordinary. But it's all his idea. I think he's wonderful to work with, and I always learn something from him," she said.
Thomas Phifer and Partners architects realized the design, with a building team from Linbeck Construction.
The installation is pristine in every way. With just a sliver of air space above and below them, the granite seats inside appear to float on the walls.
Even the knife edge of the roof — critically proportioned to serve as a platform for the projected light — is a work of art, Hubbard said. It had to be less than a quarter of an inch thick all the way around the interior and the exterior, so that at certain moments light casts a thin stripe of contrasting color there.
Then there's the berm of live TifGrand Bermuda grass — 12 feet tall and slanted 19 degrees. Hubbard jokes that she's found "some very small goats with soft mouths" to mow it, but she's actually found a specially designed lawnmower.
She knows some of Rice's faculty and students will be curious about the Skyspace's innards. "They'll be asking, how does this happen? They'll want to see the software and how all these connections get made."
Turrell spent many hours at the site, calculating and drawing.
"To understand how this programming works, you have to see a graph of this arc of the sun, and then you see the points in the arcs and (Turrell's) programming of color, of where he pushes that tone up to touch that arc," Hubbard explained. "You start to understand why it's emotional at certain points, because it's tying into your body, gravity and the arc of the sun. It's a lot of different senses going on."
The space will evolve
Suzanne Deal Booth, a Rice alumna who worked as an assistant for Turrell early in her career and then became one of his biggest patrons, donated $5 million to build the Skyspace.
"Life is circular," she said. "He made sure I got a paycheck. Now I'm making sure he gets one.
But other cycles are at play, too.
As an art-history student at Rice in the late 1970s, Deal Booth developed much of her sensitivity as a protegee of the program's founder, the legendary art patron and collector Dominique de Menil. She's had a stellar career as an art conservator, working with major institutions around the world.
Deal Booth didn't hesitate when the university asked her to join its art committee about 10 years ago, shortly after Leebron arrived.
"I felt the biggest role I could fulfill was to bring the de Menil magic back to Rice," she said.
About eight years ago, she funded a curatorial exchange with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Menil Collection that will soon bear fruit.
From the beginning, she also envisioned bringing Turrell to the campus.
Deal Booth said she and her husband, David Booth, may be his biggest private collectors, with about a dozen Turrell works dating to the artist's earliest period. They're building a new home in Austin to display their collection, which includes two outdoor installations.
She's thrilled that the Rice Skyspace is unlike anything Turrell has done before, and especially proud that it will be accessible to the public.
"This is going to be a huge jolt for the university and Houston. I hope it's something that transforms the community," she said.
How will the public art program follow this one up?
"What we do with programming is going to be the next step," Hubbard said. "I can't say there's some other grand work like these we'd ever do. But what we can do is connect it to the world."
She and Leebron acknowledged that crowd control could be an issue initially. Media from around the globe are anxious to see it.
"Like anything else on a university campus, it's going to have to evolve," Leebron said.