Commissioned by the University of Texas, Austin’s Landmarks public art program in response to the student body’s desire for a peaceful retreat in the Student Activity Center, internationally acclaimed “light and space” artist James Turrell designed The Color Inside, one of his characteristic inhabitable artworks that use an oculus open to the sky as the focal point for communal, meditative contemplation. Overland’s task was to bring this vision to life.
When the students at The University of Texas at Austin requested a meditation space for their busy Student Activity Center, the head of the university’s public art program immediately thought of commissioning artist James Turrell to create one of his signature Skyspaces. A pioneer of the California “light and space” movement of the 1960s, Turrell is recognized worldwide for installations that use light and color to heighten perception of our surroundings and of ourselves.
Turrell has stated that “light is not so much something that reveals as it is the revelation,” meaning that light can be an inspiring art form in itself, rather than just a tool to illuminate something else. He often likens his work to the Quaker practices of his youth, in which engaging in silent prayer is described as “going inside to greet the light.”
In taking on the assignment of building The Color Inside, Overland recognized that their primary challenges had to do with relationships and technology. Addressing the first concern, they made a commitment to maintaining the absolute integrity of the artist’s vision, while also fulfilling the wishes of the students and the university. To better understand Turrell’s work, the Overland team toured his Skyspaces around the country and visited Roden Crater, an extinct volcanic cinder cone in Arizona that the artist has been converting into a natural observatory since 1979. To understand the needs of their clients and involve them in their process, they organized several workshops where students discussed the programmatic functions of the student center with Turrell and Overland Partners.
After reviewing Turrell’s specifications for The Color Inside, Overland Partners realized that achieving the desired effects would not be easy, due to the nature of the materials required to build the structure and to keep it air conditioned. In searching for ways to avoid potential problems such as water and moisture accumulation or the propensity of plaster to crack, the team enlisted outside expertise from NASA.
Approaching The Color Inside is like a pilgrimage, in that visitors exit the noisy student center by taking an elevator to the third floor, move through a long corridor, and enter a rooftop boardwalk to find the elliptical structure. Once inside the Skyspace, visitors can sit on a viewing bench attached to canted walls in a reclining position that directs one’s gaze to the oculus in the ceiling. For those wanting a daily ritual, they can visit at dusk and dawn, when computer-controlled LED lights hidden in a light cove above the benches illuminate the ceiling area surrounding the oculus with a sequence of changing colors.
Principal in Charge, Rick Archer, commented that a visit to the Skyspace is a “bonding experience with the people you meet there.” Busy at all times of day, it has become a popular spot for students and nonstudents alike to relax and share in a perceptual experience that can be at once meditative and exhilarating.
- Architizer A+ Awards Architecture+Collaboration Honorable Mention 2015
- Americans for the Arts Public Art Network Year in Review: National Recognition to the Best in Public Art Projects 2014
- Texas Highways, The Travel Magazine of Texas, “Light Fantastic, The illuminating Art of James Turrell,” November 2014
- Austin American-Statesman, “Public Art Takes a Leap Forward,” January 2014
- Texas Architect, “Lines, Numbers and Colors,” November/December 2013
- Austin American Statesman, “UT Student Center Gets a Grand Skyspace,” October 2013
- Daily Texan, “Artist James Turrell Reflects on New SAC Skyspace,” October 2013
- Houston Chronicle, “Inner Intensity: James Turrell’s New Austin Skyspace,” October 2013
- New York Times, “Love Affair Between One Artist and Texas,” October 2013
- New York Times, “See the Light,” October 2013
- Texas Monthly, “Texas’s Love Affair with James Turrell,” October 2013
- Alcalde, “Eyes on the Sky,” September/October 2013
- Austin American Statesman, “UT Makes Big Leap in Public Art,” February 2013
For more about James Turrell & other UT Austin Landmarks, visit their websites at www.jamesturrell.com and UT Austin Landmarks.