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.”