How James Turrell Brings Art Into Architecture and How You Can Too

Architecture
Decoration and Design
By Alex Mikayelyan September 14, 2021

While there is no “art” in the word “architecture”, there certainly is art in architecture. Countless times we’ve witnessed how architecture turns a brick and mortar structure into something beyond the sum of its parts. The works of Frank Gehry, Dame Zaha Hadid, and I.M.Pei are only a few of the most famous examples of how architecture is manifested as a work of art. But as amazing as monumental works like Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall or Dame Zaya Hadid’s Heydar Aliev Center may be, what about residential architecture? How can you bring art into your home's architecture and incorporate it into its design?

Homeowners love to stylize their homes and make them wholly unique and personal. This is accomplished through a variety of design decisions such as the layout of rooms, the lighting, colors, and shapes that all come together to make a unique environment. For homeowners who see art as the living, evolving, and multi-disciplinary expression that it is, James Turrell has become a household name from the East Coast to the West.

While most of his artistic accomplishments are on a large scale and not made to adorn residential buildings, you can see Turrell’s compact work in several prestigious estates. His work with light has made him a renowned artist. Tours of many celebrity homes, like those of Kendall Jenner and Cara Delavingne, often include a James Turrell light installation and receive a deliberate spotlight. 

A Little About James Turrell

James Turrell is among the pioneers of the Light and Space artistic movement. Other famous visionaries of this movement include Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, and Larry Bell. He also has countless masterpieces of architecture design under his belt that would be hard to do justice in one sitting. You can find many of Turrell’s installations and architectural designs all over the country as well as overseas.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Turrell began working with light projection and was simultaneously studying in the Studio Art graduate program at the University of California, Irvine. This is what led him to develop an interest in the art of lighting and form. Afterward, he began collaborating with all manner of artists to experiment with light projection. During these years he developed his unique signature in working with light design and that is why today the world is witness to some of his most iconic works of art. 

Turrell’s Magnum Opus

"Blue Planet Sky" by James Turrell at the Century Museum of Contemporary Art In Kanazawa

"Blue Planet Sky" by James Turrell at the Century Museum of Contemporary Art In Kanazawa

As with any artist, Turrell has a magnum opus to which he has dedicated a large portion of his artistic career. In 1979, Turrell purchased an inactive volcanic cone in Arizona called the Roden Crater. This crater was formed by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago but currently lies dormant in the vast open space of the Arizona desert. 

The acquisition of an inactive volcano is already quite an eccentric step as it is, but Turrell did not want to leave the crater as it was. He began constructing a naked-eye observatory which would consist of several installations and structures designed to give observers some truly gorgeous scenery to see.

Originally slated to open to the public in 2011, this light and sky observatory is without a doubt Tyrrell’s largest project and is still being constructed to this day. After delays, the opening date was moved to 2024. A large portion of this pièce de résistance is complete and has even hosted the filming of Kanye West’s film “Jesus Is King”. While the observatory is still under construction many supporters of Turrell’s work hope that they will get to experience his magnum opus soon.

Turrell Tools: Light and Space

James Turrell Skyspace Art Structure, adjacent The National Gallery of Australia

James Turrell Skyspace Art Structure, adjacent The National Gallery of Australia

These two words are quite common in the world of interior design. Pick the brain of any interior designer and they will tell you how crucial these elements are to creating iconic interiors.

When it comes to installations that make use of both light and form to create an other-worldly visual experience, few designs work as well as skyspaces. These are roofed structures of various shapes with openings at the top which look to the sky. By carefully limiting the light in the interior of the structure, the natural hues of the sky create a gorgeous visage of colors and shapes. The skyspace design is what Turrell is most known for. He is famous across the world for his ability to create breathtaking visual designs by combining form and color. 

James Turrell's "Twilight Epiphany" Skyspace

James Turrell's "Twilight Epiphany" Skyspace

Turrell himself states that his work is simple. It does not have any images in it whatsoever. Instead, his skyspaces rely on shapes and lighting playing off of one another to create some truly unique visuals that make you think you’re looking at a painting. 

Bringing Light Projection Art Home

So the next question is, how does one go about combining art and architecture in a residential setting. Sure, visiting one of the skyscapes is an exhilarating and enlightening experience, but the possibility of having a Turrell aesthetic incorporated into the interior design of your home is also quite awesome.

You likely cannot fit Turrell’s original art or his naked-eye observatory into your home. The price tag on some of his art may also be quite steep. But you can incorporate various elements and approaches of Turrell’s design into your home. 

The Magic of Skylights

How You Can Manipulate Light With the Forms In Your House

How You Can Manipulate Light With the Forms In Your House

The easiest way to bring in some natural light into your home and mimic the effect of Turrell’s works is to install a skylight. Especially if you live in an area with plenty of light pollution you may not be able to see as many heavenly bodies in the night sky as you would from the Roden Crater observatory. 

However, the point is not what you see in the sky but rather the color of the sky itself. Paying attention to the objects in the sky is not the focus of light and space. Rather, the focus is centered on how light works with the architecture and interior design of your home to create unique forms. A great example of this effect and visual is Turrell’s own Twilight Epiphany or Space That Sees, both of which make use of the deep blue sky to create a contrasting visual. 

LED Lighting

Using LED Lights to Turn Function Into An Artistic Expression

Using LED Lights to Turn Function Into An Artistic Expression

As much as Turrell emphasizes natural light in his works of light projection, LEDs play a major role in his installations as well. The use of LEDs in interior design is meant to bring in some extra vibrancy that will accent the forms of the interior.

Creative Solutions to Simple Home Design Necessities

Creative Solutions to Simple Home Design Necessities

You can use LED light strips to line various strips of architecture that you want to highlight in your home; perhaps an arched hallway or an exposed natural stone accent wall. Speak with your interior designer and architect about how you can compliment the form of your home with added color, texture, and perhaps even sound.

More Complex Surfaces

Consider Unorthodox Architectural Solutions to Simple Structures

Consider Unorthodox Architectural Solutions to Simple Structures

When designing your unique Turrell-inspired interior, attempt to work with the surfaces you have available in your home. Many homeowners tend to overlook great opportunities when designing their interior spaces. Leaving the surfaces of your home blank does have its benefits, but if you want your interior to tell a story you may want to add some complexity.

Elevating Interior Spaces with Added Texture to Surfaces

Elevating Interior Spaces with Added Texture to Surfaces

Complexity in the form of art pieces, light fixtures, or living walls will contribute a lot more when paired with more varied lighting. Some options for that lighting are LED installations, skylights, or unique architectural solutions that allow light to travel in an atypical way. By adding art that’s not necessarily a canvas in a frame to your blank surfaces, you can also allow natural light to travel differently and create some nice shadows. This is the approach to form that Turrell uses in many of his installations to give them more character. He manipulates a new visual journey that is much more than having light reflect off existing surfaces, and you can too.

Written by
Alex Mikayelyan

Written by Alex Mikayelyan