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.