Breaking Ground

New James Turrell installation promises to shed sound & light on Rice campus

New James Turrell installation promises to shed sound & light on Rice campus

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A rendering of the skyspace. Rendering by Jim Crownover
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Construction is underway of the Rice University James Turrell skyspace. Photo by Steven Thomson
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From left: Suzanne Deal Booth, Rice University President David Leebron, Chair of Rice Board of Trustees Jim Crownover, University Art Director Molly Hubbard Photo by Steven Thomson
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News_Turrell installation_groundbreaking
News_Turrell installation_groundbreaking

Come November, Houston can claim itself a veritable treasure trove of works by James Turrell, the mastermind of such light-based, site specific installations as "The Light Inside" subterranean tunnel at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the reinvigorated Live Oak Friends Meeting House in Shady Acres. Completing the future trifecta of Turrell works is a skyspace on the Rice University campus.

Like a beacon on the lawn between Rice's Shepherd School of Music and Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, the skyspace will be characterized by a flat-topped, 72-square-foot pyramid housing a seating area for viewers. A square hole cut into a hovering platform will frame views of the sky. An array of LEDs, mounted in troughs atop the pyramid, will enchant viewers with colored sunrise and sunset light shows below the canopy.

The Rice piece represents Turrell's 28th skyspace — but the first to be outfitted for live and recorded music.

The saga of how the Rice skyspace is being realized involves the intellectual and philanthropic journey of alumna and Rice trustee, Suzanne Deal Booth. As an undergraduate at Rice, Booth interned with Dominique de Menil at the nascent Menil Collection, then housed in "The Barn" on the Rice Campus. "This pavilion also stands as a tribute to her spirit and keen perception," Booth explained at the recent groundbreaking ceremony.

Booth lived with de Menil in Manhattan while attending New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, and it was the grand art patron who introduced the graduate student to Turrell. Booth worked as a part-time assistant to the artist, aiding in the building of one of his first skyspaces at Queens' P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. In 1980, she also assisted in the installation of Turrell's first retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Now, the Turrell devotee has come full circle, bringing one of her favorite artists to her alma mater by funding the $6 million project. Booth's donation represents the single largest gift by a Rice alum for a piece of art. Explained the donor,

It is my hope that this pavilion will contribute to Rice, its students, and all who visit here as a source of contemplation, interaction and wonder . . . I'm also thrilled that the pavilion has been conceived as a public art space, and that for the students here at Rice and others, it will become a part of their daily life — an everyday experience — as I fully believe that art, rather than being contained, restrained and rarified, can be about discovering the special and sublime in our everyday lives." 

"What's really unique is that the space is being acoustically engineered extensively to double as a music lab for the school," Molly Hubbard, director of the public art program at Rice, told CultureMap. Visitors will enter through two entryways into the interior space with a stone floor and benches to accommodate about 44 guests. A staircase will bring spectators to a second standing area, bringing the total number of participants to 150.

In an interview, Robert Yekovich, dean of the Shepherd School, said the internal viewing area of the skyspace will be ideal for very small chamber music ensembles, such as a string quartet or flute duo. Discreet design details include a one-degree slant of the internal walls to maximize the reverberative characteristics of the space. Hidden within the four flat walls will be 12 state of-the-art speakers, as well as two invisible subwoofers built into opposite sides of the floor.

"The sound system will be wired to a mixing panel that will allow our composers in the Shepherd School to arrange the speakers in any way," said Yekovich, explaining that there will be a digital playback option, allowing composers to design compositions that specifically fit the space. What's more, Turrell's LED installation has been conceived with specific composers in mind. "Original works that are comprised of electronic and digitally produced music, and sometimes combined with live acoustic music, will interface with the light, creating true multimedia works in the space," said Yekovich. "It's the only skyspace in the world that will have this capacity."

The skyspace will be programmed around sunrise and sunset light shows, affording generous hours for visitation when it opens late this year or early next year. Tentatively, one day a week will be reserved for university use, but otherwise, the space will be open to students, Houston residents and visitors alike.

"It won't just be a music lab," said Hubbard, emphasizing the intention to bring other forms of musical performances and happenings. "We're also very interested in keeping it unprogrammed, so people will experience it as a work of art," she said.

The Rice skyspace groundbreaking comes on the heels of the acquisition of a dozen light-based Turrell works by the MFAH. Titled Vertical Vintage, the selection traces the arc of the artist's exploration of artificial light. That acquisition, along with the over 100 Turrell photographs, prints and working proofs in the MFAH collection, will further buttress a landmark 2013 Turrell retrospective currently being organized in collaboration with the Guggenheim and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.