Art + SOM: James Turrell at the Greenwich Academy Upper School

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SOM’s Arts Legacy

Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Alexander Calder are just several of the major artists who have produced important works for SOM buildings. More recently the firm has worked with contemporary artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Rita McBride, and Bob Whitman, as well as the venerated talent James Turrell, whose exploration of light and perception has informed SOM buildings fundamentally. Turrell’s viewpoint is especially integrated into the design of the Greenwich Academy Upper School, which was completed in 2002. A new limited-edition monograph about that building details the artist’s contributions.

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The Challenge

Greenwich Academy is an all-girls preparatory school that, since its launch in 1827, has been a fixture of Greenwich, Connecticut, and of best-in-class education. Yet its physical assets have not stood the test of time as successfully. A 1960s-era upper-school classroom building, namely, posed a problem: The interior of the building was oppressively dark and, when rainfall failed to drain properly, dank. Dirt pathways also revealed that circulation between the building and the academy’s other schools did not take place as the original architect had envisioned. Demurring to an initial charge to renovate the building, SOM proposed instead to replace the old upper school totally and redesign its relationship to the site.

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First Impressions

When SOM Design Partner Roger Duffy first visited the Greenwich Academy campus, he was struck by the broad hill that rose “like an enormous wave,” on which the vintage brick-and-concrete upper school stood, pier-like. “In retrospect, this vivid first impression of the site influenced all that was to come,” Duffy recalls.

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The Parti

Despite some variations of form, the 55,000-square-foot upper school was thoroughly conceived with the first iterations in 1998 and 1999. Duffy imagined nestling it into the landscape, with a green roof acting as an extension of the stunning hilltop crowned by the landmark Ruth West Campbell Hall; the new building’s datum, meanwhile, flowing seamlessly into the playing fields and landscape located at the hill’s base. The facility’s interior is organized into math, arts, and humanities classroom clusters, as well as a library. An equal number of wood-framed “light chambers” provide daylight and identity to the four zones.

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Introducing James Turrell

Early on, Duffy raised the possibility of hiring Turrell to fill the light chambers, according to Patsy Howard, the head of school who oversaw construction of the new building. To build consensus for this idea, the architect arranged for a reception at Greenwich Academy where Michael Govan, then president and director of the Dia Foundation in New York, introduced Turrell to administration staff and trustees. Duffy subsequently arranged for Howard, chairman of the Board of Trustees Jim Allwin, and trustee Patricia Gregory to visit Turrell’s signature Roden Crater installation in northern Arizona.

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A Compelling Proposal

Turrell proposed illuminating the four light chambers in a sequence of different colors, creating a dialogue of light that also evokes connections across different disciplines. Though both Howard and Gregory remember the Roden Crater experience as magical, Howard was reluctant. She remembers thinking, “What was a school doing commissioning a major work of art when one could use the same money to fund scholarships?” The idea of adding a special value to the building, however, allowed donors to contribute outside the normal endowment campaign with an additional gift.

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Turrell’s Scheme

Turrell’s design called for lining the ceiling of two of the interior spaces, the entry atrium, and the library with variable-color LED strips—at the time, a relatively new technology. These strips became the basis for Turrell’s designs outlining the entrances, and the floor and ceiling geometries. Choreographed by computer, the spaces slowly fill with an unearthly light that intensifies as the sky darkens. Frits of nickel sulfide within the glass walls and roof reflect the light onto itself, creating volumes of pure color that gradually cycle through the RGB spectrum over a 25-minute sequence.

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Opening Ceremony

When the building was inaugurated in October 2003, the school’s dance coordinator Marcia Brooks choreographed a nighttime student performance to celebrate the event in the presence of Turrell, Govan, and the entire school. Combining set movements with moments of improvised expression, the dancers wound their way through the school responding to the changes in the light. A 2008 version of the performance placed the dancers only in the library.

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Architecture Transformed

Turrell had a significant impact on the building — his work was not just brightness added to a darkened building. Light had been a primary theme for the design team and client alike, and Turrell crafted light to inhabit space, as if it were material itself.

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The Artist’s Additional Input

Turrell additionally suggested that the light chambers assume torqued forms, in order to possess a more three-dimensional quality. Now you can see more than one side of each light chamber at the same time. “He helped us shape the light chambers in ways I didn’t see,” says Duffy, “turning them from planes into volumes of glass that could contain light.” Plans to illuminate all the chambers could not be fulfilled, but the space for the wiring is in place should the interest to implement the full proposal develop. Even so, when seen by day, the chambers become sculptural objects in the roof garden, like works of negative sculpture.

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Of course, not every part of the building produces the same experience of light. For example, the client requested that the floor of the humanities wing be fabricated in wood to lower sound levels (the architects preferred frosted glass), which has left some lower areas of the building darker than intended. In the meantime, Turrell’s treatment of the light chambers has created unintentional positive consequences. Erin Riley, chair of the Department of Visual Arts and director of Greenwich Academy’s Engineering and Design Lab, uses the site-specific art as inspiration for an assignment working with RGB lights; students make containers for the lights to create different effects. As Duffy told Metropolis magazine, “You never know how these collaborations are going to turn out. It’s like swimming in the deep end of the pool.” Turrell himself noted, “For Roger to be willing to take on problems they didn’t have before, for the sake of art, is a big deal.”