Given James Turrell’s fondness for the mysticism of the Desert Southwest, few would expect that Turrell would have placed one of his signature skyspaces in urban Chicago. Not located inside of a serene museum, instead it’s placed as a piece of public sculpture directly adjacent to the intersection of Roosevelt and Halsted Avenues. With the regularly aggressive flow of traffic and the chatty flow of students from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the site is far from serene. Commissioned by the university this skyspace wears its compromises to the urban environment in its’ structure.
Located not fifty paces from the street the red stucco rotunda rises about thirty feet. Inside upward looking concrete benches line the sides. The upper walls of the building contain frosted windows that modulate the brightness of the white ceiling to accommodate the visual effects of the oculus. This concrete Pantheon has an oval opening at its apex, eliminating the contrast created by atmospheric perspective. By taking a smaller slice of the sky it is more uniform in color and consequently there is a lessened sense of its depth. The color flattens out and becomes “figure” to the buildings’ “ground,” to use some art and design terminology. The effect can be quite startling and serene.
Yet this idyllic gesture is mitigated by time and place. Erected in 2004, the poor sculpture desperately needs a bath after this harsh winter. A brown ring of soot from the incoming rainwater has grown around the oculus that all but ruins the perceptual tricks of the space. Furthermore the design is open at its base for reasons of public safety. As a closed structure like many of Mr. Turrell’s others it would surely have been more serene, yet in Chicago that’s asking for a slew muggings, or worse, as UIC public spaces have struggled with in the past. To be fair, in the warmer months a fountain encircles the interior space mixing the bleating horns and roaring engines with the pleasant sound of falling water. But, like listening to an audio recording of ocean waves while commuting on the “El” trains, it doesn’t really work.
Yet it’s this contrast that ultimately renders the site a rich object of attention. The downfall of the Minimalist view of perception, of which Mr. Turrell is an antecedent and exemplar, was its disconnection from the particularities of lived experience and social influence on the individual. By compromising its integrity in order to enter the urban environment Mr. Turrell’s skyspace stands (unintentionally) for the limits of abstracted discourse. This is not to say that rarefied considerations of perceptual acuity are not generative, rather it is to say that they are in constant symbiosis with practical, political, social, economic and temporal concerns. That’s why its refreshing and generative to consider a dirty oculus.