Throughout his long career, artist James Turrell has explored light both as a medium and as a metaphor for personal introspection. All of his work extends an invitation to greet the light—an approach inspired by his Quaker grandmother who taught him the importance of seeking one's own inner light to understand one's place in the larger world.
Turrell's artistic explorations have led him to create his signature work, what he calls “sky-spaces.” These intimately scaled enclosures invite his audience to view the sky through an opening in the roof while programmed lighting subtly washes the interior's white surfaces with a slowly unfolding cycle of colors. At dawn and dusk, as the celestial dome brightens or darkens, the changing light gradually alters the viewer's perception of the patch of sky floating above; and juxtaposed with the two-dimensional ceiling plane, the sky's infinite depth appears to flatten and its color modulates in complement to the chromatic sequence. Each viewer's experience is unique, requiring patience and a willingness to concentrate on the space and on the light. In fact, to fully appreciate the experience of a skyspace, one must take an active role and become fully immersed in the art. The popularity of Turrell's creation has led to scores of commissions—from both public institutions and private clients—to design and build site-specific skyspaces around the world.
Twilight Epiphany at Rice University in Houston is Turrell's 73rd skyspace, and with its design he introduces elements—a pyramidal form, multilevel viewing, an open-air configuration, and audio components—that heighten the metaphorical thrust of his invitation to greet the light. The project is a permanent installation on the Rice University campus, made possible by a multimillion-dollar gift from alumnus Suzanne Deal Booth to commemorate the university's centennial this year. Twilight Epiphany—a sublime work of light and lightness—opened in June, following a year of construction.
Turrell's successful experimentation with new formal properties imbues Twilight Epiphany with a sense of timelessness by merging modern architectural characteristics (e.g., complex infrastructure purposefully yet subtly hidden from view) with aspects that recall the longing among earlier civilizations to understand their place in the vast universe.
To realize the project, Turrell collaborated with New York–based architect Thomas Phifer and his firm Thomas Phifer and Partners. The first-time pairing of artist and architect proved a particularly enlightened decision. Phifer designed the popular and highly praised Brochstein Pavilion, completed in 2009 on the Rice campus. Raymond Brochstein, co-chair with Deal Booth of the Rice Art Committee, suggested the pairing. As with Turrell's work, Phifer's 6,000-square-foot student center represents a sophisticated use of light—in this case the abundant sunshine of Texas's coastal plain, which filters through sculptural rooftop skylights and an elegant horizontal trellis made of aluminum tubes, to shade the outdoor perimeter seating.
Turrell located this skyspace on axis with Phifer's pavilion, which stands approximately 1,200 feet away in an adjacent quadrangle. Both free-standing structures share a similarly graceful silhouette and a modest scale, as well as a primarily white palette. But the commonalities end there.