James Turrell's Skyspac installation on the ASU Tempe campus

ASU Skyspace investigates light and perception.

James Turrell ASU Skyspace

Air Apparent

The placement of James Turrell’s Skyspace: Air Apparent on the ASU Tempe campus near “three of the most sophisticated science facilities on Earth” was not an accident. Faculty and research staff in Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 (ISTB4) are renowned for designing instruments to enable scientific exploration of other worlds. In addition to complex labs, ISTB4 provides public outreach spaces on the first and second floors that invite visitors into the scientific and engineering challenges that invigorate studies of Earth and the universe.

As with all of Turrell’s investigations into light and perception, his ASU Skyspace is unique in its architectural manifestation, rootedness to place, and nuance of materiality, detail and character. It is intended to balance the poetry of his ideas with the pragmatic concerns of climate, comfort, 24/7 public access, personal safety, universal accessibility, and budget responsiveness. Working with Turrell to complement the perceptual experience of the phenomenon of light, this Skyspace strives to be a minimalist background to the art and the idea.

The architecture and landscape

Architect William P. Bruder of Will Bruder Architects, LLC provides insight about working with artist James Turrell on ASU Skyspace in Tempe, Ariz.

The architecture of the ASU Skyspace by James Turrell is a contemporary interpretation of ancient Hohokam shade ramadas, pit houses and baskets. To realize the work of James Turrell, it was designed in collaboration with architect William P. Bruder and redefined in a minimal sculptural formwork of 21st-century concrete and steel.

The goal of the architecture and landscape at the ASU Skyspace is to enfold, complement and enhance the experience of all who visit the art of James Turrell.

Following about a year of construction, the Skyspace structure was completed in July 2012. Skyspace resides on the Arizona State University Tempe campus just west of Rural Road and north of Terrace Avenue. The position of Skyspace on the ASU campus is on an alignment 11 degrees east of north -- the setting of true magnetic north, the aviator’s north bearing.

ASU Skyspace is cited in landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck’s award-winning desert gardens.

Access and pathways

Visitors who access Skyspace from Terrace Avenue travel through a lush desert landscape of mature ironwood and Palo Brea trees, native creosotes and ground covers on a bush-hammered textured, volcanic cinder-seeded concrete walkway. This informal angular walk connects to a formal eleven-foot-wide stabilized red cinder path that frames the Skyspace while connecting to its north and south entry portals. Walkways and ramps are edged in a non-directional surfaced stainless steel plate with polished edges that carry the ambient light of both day and night.

Evoking the separateness of an ancient pit house, away from the desert heat, entry ramps slope gently downward and guide visitors into the space.

Design details

Honoring Turrell’s rigorous concern for proportional perfection, appropriateness of scale, and conceptual simplicity of plan and section, the elegant nine-square compositional layout builds off Skyspace’s 45-foot-square ceiling plane with its preciously centered 15-foot-square opening to the sky.

This seemingly paper-thin plane is a quarter-inch-thick steel plate that weighs 16 tons with a hidden framework of structural steel members. This element is suspended above the perforated scrim walls of the Skyspace by a “cat’s cradle,” like a system of steel cables tied to the corners of a grand column and beam structure 90 feet on a side by 30 feet in height.

The Skyspace experience

Once inside the space, visitors focus on the circular opening above through a floating steel plane. Approximately 50 people can sit on a polished black granite cantilevered bench on the perimeter of the space. The sloped bench and titled scrim wall provide ergonomic comfort for an extended viewing experience. A shallow trough at the top of the walls contains 480 LED color-changing light fixtures. Programmed by Turrell, these light fixtures optimize sunrise and sunset viewer experiences of light and color perception.

Discrete video monitors of the access ramps and interior space help provide 24/7 safety and security. Along with the visibility afforded by the finely perforated stainless steel sidewall, the porosity of these planes allows for a gentle natural airflow and dynamic visual moiré patterning of light and shadow, making Skyspace an oasis of calm.