James Turrell’s Roden Crater

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If you thought building a house on top of an extinct volcano was cool, how about building one on the inside? That’s what artist James Turrell has been doing on Roden Crater, in Arizona, for the last 40 years.

Roden Crater is an extinct volcanic cinder cone, located in the San Francisco Volcanic Field near Arizona’s Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon. The cone is 3.2 km wide, 600 feet tall, and is approximately 400,000 years old. The volcano and the surrounding land was purchased by Los Angles-based artist James Turrell in 1979, with the intention of turning the cinder cone into a massive open air work of art consisting of a naked-eye observatory at the inner core, where guests could view and experience sky-light, solar, and celestial phenomena.

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Photo credit: James Turrell

Turrell is well known within the art community for the way his art plays with light and space. The Roden Crater project is Turrell's most ambitious one, and his longest — he has been working on it since 1972. Turrell was inspired, as he stated on his website, by ancient observatories like Borobudur, Angkor Wat, Pagan, Machu Picchu, the Mayan pyramids, the Egyptian pyramids, Herodium, Old Sarum, Newgrange and the Maes Howe. “These places and structures have certainly influenced my thinking. These thoughts will find concurrence in Roden Crater,” he said.

Initially Turrell expected the project to be completed in 2 to 3 years. But the date of completion was pushed back a number of times due to financial issues and construction had to be halted at different times. Now more than 35 years later, he's completed construction on only about one-third of his plans. The project is not open to the public, but occasionally Turrell would invite friends and acquaintances for tours. Very few people have seen the insides.

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Erin Wright, the Director of Artist Initiatives at LACMA, who produced a short film on Roden Crater, spoke about her visit:

There’s a space called the Sun and Moon Chamber to observe celestial events—you can see images of the sun and moon on the surface of a large basalt stone called the “image stone.” Leading up from that stone is an approximately 900 foot tunnel that leads to a portal—an opening to the sky. The 900 foot tunnel acts as a giant refractor telescope and contains a very large lens at the center to focus the light.

A number of the spaces inside Roden Crater are Skyspaces where you can observe dawn and dusk; the color of the sky becomes incredibly vibrant as you’re watching it from inside the crater, because of the way Turrell has designed the Skyspace. If you walked outside, the color of the sky would be different. Turrell intends for the visitor to sit, from the onset of sunset until dark, to experience the full effect.

There’s something at the center of the crater’s bowl—an area that you see at the end of the film, called the Crater Plaza, and there are four large rectangular plinths that surround the crater eye. These are meant for people to lie down on and observe the sky and a phenomenon that is called celestial vaulting, where you can see the curve of the sky. You’re only able to see that because of the way Turrell has shaped the rim of the crater. He is manipulating your vision by allowing you to experience this phenomenon of seeing the sky as a dome rather than a flat plane.

You can watch the short movie on vimeo.

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Photo credit: James Turrell

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Photo credit: James Turrell

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Photo credit: James Turrell

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Photo credit: James Turrell

Sources: rodencrater.com / www.lasersol.com / LACMA.org

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