Insights

Giving Flight to a Skyspace

The architects who produced the latest installation in James Turrell’s world-renowned series reflect on a remarkable partnership where art and architecture become one.

Frances Halsband has collaborated with many artists over her career whose works were incorporated into the architecture her firm was designing. But the most recent project she directed—a Skyspace installation by artist James Turrell at the private Friends Seminary School in New York City—stands in a class all its own. “It has an ‘oh my God, my life just changed!’ kind of feeling,” she says. “It goes to the heart of who you are and how you see things. The best art does that.”

James Turrell's Skyspace at Friends Seminary School in New York, with the aperture open to the blue sky and clouds

James Turrell created “Leading,” a Skyspace for Friends Seminary School in New York City.
Photograph Courtesy Nicholas Wan

Leading” is Turrell’s 94th worldwide Skyspace installation—and the only one in a K-12 school. His works are known for altering a viewer’s perception of the sky through an aperture in the ceiling of a chamber swathed in shifting LED light colors. The one at Friends Seminary features a roughly 20-square-foot space lined with high-backed teak benches. A gabled, retractable roof containing a dome covers the square aperture, so when the sky isn’t visible, visitors are treated to a light show of contrasting hues that fill the dome and wash down the walls. The lights are also at play when the roof is pulled back: “The minute they turn the color lights on, it’s as though the sky has changed, and it’s completely convincing. So you have to say to yourself, ‘No, that’s me perceiving art. It’s not really happening. The sky did not just turn green or pink!’ Sometimes you have to open the door, run out, take a look, and run back in,” Halsband says.

James Turrell's Skyspace installation at Friends Seminary School in New York, showing red and green light effects

The Skyspace light show features contrasting colors between the chamber and the aperture above. Photograph Copyright John Galayda/Courtesy Friends Seminary

The installation opened to the school last spring, and on March 1, it will begin admitting members of the public once a month while school is in session. The first two advertised dates sold out in minutes, and according to The New York Times, Skyspace has already led to an increase in enrollment.

Project Origins

The project was conceived 10 years ago, when Friends Seminary first engaged Kliment Halsband Architects (now a Perkins Eastman Studio) to design a top-to-bottom renovation of its main building, Hunter Hall, and three adjoining historic townhouses that were built in 1852. The adaptive-reuse project reconstructed the townhouses to provide additional classrooms; a multi-use, indoor-outdoor “great room”; dance and music suites; and offices. The townhouses are connected to the 1964-era Hunter Hall, and two additional floors were added to all the structures, with a new playing field and a greenhouse across their collective roof.

Friends Seminary School facade, New York City

The Friends Seminary renovations, which took place from 2016-2019, restored the historic facades of three nineteenth-century townhouses, right, while gutting and rebuilding their interiors. The project also added
two floors across the top of the main building, at left, and the townhouse structures.
Photograph Copyright Ruggero Vanni/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

From their earliest conversations with Principal Robert “Bo” Lauder in 2014, Lauder indicated he wanted the project to include a Skyspace. (Turrell, a practicing Quaker who had once worshipped at the 15th Street Friends Meeting house on the school’s campus, agreed to Lauder’s invitation, going so far as to donate his work, plus an additional piece for the school to auction to help raise money for the construction.) The Kliment Halsband team thus included Skyspace in the renovation plans they submitted for the lengthy permitting and approval process with the city, even though it was ultimately built as a separate project after the renovations were completed in 2019.

Rendering diagram for the renovations and James Turrell Skyspace installation at the Friends Seminary School in New York.

An aerial rendering shows the Skyspace at center, atop a new bay tower emerging from one of the townhouse structures. Behind it is a new greenhouse, while a rooftop playing field sits atop the main school building.
Copyright Perkins Eastman

“The good thing was, the Skyspace was there from the beginning of the approvals process, and if it hadn’t been, I don’t know if we could have ever made it happen as an addition,” says Principal Michael Nieminen, who oversaw the work with Halsband, while Senior Associate Nicholas Wan focused on the detailed design development and construction documents. The early approvals allowed the team to put in place the necessary mechanical-electric-plumbing (MEP) infrastructure for Skyspace during the main renovation. “We were primed for the project by the time it started [in 2022] in ways that you might not be if it had been a singular project in an existing site,” Nieminen says.

The new glass-walled great room, terrace, and upgraded courtyard at Friends Seminary School in New York.

A parapet at the top of a new tower was a placeholder for the Skyspace that would come a few years after the renovations were complete. The work included a new “great room” that opens to the courtyard, with an additional terrace above it that opens from a student commons area.
Photograph Copyright Ruggero Vanni/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Working with James Turrell

Another factor that eased the process was Turrell himself, Halsband says. Some artists are big-picture thinkers, offering their concept to the architect and then telling them to “go figure it out,” she explains, while others are more collaborative and express interest in the building design around their installation. But Turrell, like his Skyspace, went beyond all of that. During their first meeting back in 2015, he took out a piece of paper and began making technical drawings. He was obsessed with details, Halsband says, such as the exact angle of recline on the back of the benches to create sightlines so that nothing but the sky would be visible from below. “He was dealing in exquisite detail so that the final product would be absolutely perfect.”

Artist James Turrell at his first meeting with Kliment Halsband Architect to discuss the design of his Skyspace installation at Friends Seminary School in New York

Artist James Turrell’s first meeting with Frances Halsband and Michael Nieminen, right, was in 2015.
Photograph Courtesy Kliment Halsband Architects—A Perkins Eastman Studio.

 

The concept drawing Turrell produced for his Skyspace at Friends Seminary School in New York included the idea for a retractable roof with an interior domeand dimensions for the interior seating. Courtesy James Turrell

The concept drawing Turrell produced at that first meeting included the idea for a retractable roof with an interior dome, top center, and dimensions for the interior seating. Copyright James Turrell

“The dimensions and scale of what Turrell sketched gave us a sense of what we could work with” during the school’s renovations, Wan adds, so they could properly locate the adjacent greenhouse and elevator. The Skyspace now sits at the top of a new tower of meeting spaces facing the school’s private inner courtyard and garden, which is hidden from the street. Its location also satisfied the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission requirement that the structure not be visible from the historic streetscape off Stuyvesant Square Park.

The retractable roof of the James Turrell Skyspace at Friends Seminary School in New York slides open on a track system, as seen from below.

Students, faculty, and staff can tell when the Skyspace aperture is open, as it slides out over the building’s edge, above the school’s third-floor terrace and ground-level courtyard. Photograph Courtesy Nicholas Wan

Down to the Details

Wan worked closely with Turrell’s team as he developed the construction documents. In addition to providing for all the MEP tie-ins, the group needed to define elements of form, materiality, sightlines, and the proprietary lighting and computer equipment that would support the illumination program. It was up to the Kliment Halsband team to create an experience that would be specific to the school, Wan says, and then every detail and material suggestion went to Turrell’s studio for approval. The materials were spare—teak seating on a black-granite floor. The granite is common in the artist’s Skyspaces, Wan says, because it’s water proof and its thermal finish is slip-resistant. The teak is unique to Friends Seminary, as it matches the wall paneling in the prominent great room off the school’s lobby, which opens to its internal courtyard. But Turrell was particular about the color of its stain and oil finish so it wouldn’t fade from sun exposure. The team also brought in an acoustician to advise on proper sound-proofing around the exterior of the Skyspace tower, so even though it’s in the middle of a dense metropolis, with school children playing on the roof outside, the only sounds you can hear from within are the prevailing breezes, Wan says.

Giving Flight to a Skyspace 4 The great room at Friends Seminary School in New York features telescoping benches, teak wall paneling, and retractable Nana Wall glass windows.

The teak Skyspace seating echoes the wall panels in the school’s great room. Left Photograph Copyright John Galayda/Courtesy Friends Seminary; right photograph Copyright Ruggero Vanni/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

 

While some Skyspace installations in more temperate climates remain open to the elements, that wasn’t possible in New York, so Turrell suggested a retractable roof; Kliment Halsband then engineered one that can slide open and closed on a track system. An interior, cast-fiberglass dome replaces the sky when the roof is closed, illuminated by lights invisible to anyone below. Additional lighting is hidden in a cove behind the seating. The computer system that orchestrates the light show is hidden behind the teak panels—the LED technology is the same as that which washes color over the outsides of notable New York structures such as Grand Central Terminal and the adjacent Helmsley Building. For the Friends Seminary display to be successful, the walls and ceiling were crafted of museum-standard, Level 5 plaster—the highest quality available, whose surface is ultra-smooth with no dimpling that could catch a shadow.

 

Construction drawing of James Turrell's Skyspace at Friends Seminary School in New YOrk

A construction drawing indicates placement for continuous cove lighting above the seats; the roof and dome assembly with double lights pointing upward from each side above the aperture; and the triangle knife-edge
panels at its opening. Copyright Perkins Eastman

The ceiling’s edge at the aperture was a special focus of attention. Triangle-shaped blocks of precast glass fiber over reinforced concrete were affixed around the opening and sharpened so finely that the line between ceiling and sky seems to disappear, without any shadow or glare along the edge. Of every detail that went into the work, Halsband notes, none could have been more important. “I fully believe there are a thousand emails just about that knife edge,” she says. Yet in meetings, she adds, Turrell “never even talked about the effect of the light. He just kind of knew how to make this perfect machine.”

Construction photo showing the framing of the aperture for James Turrell's Skyspace at Friends Seminary School in New York

The Skyspace aperture takes shape during construction. Photograph Courtesy Nicholas Wan

Finished Product

Since the project has completed, Nieminen says the experience of being inside the Skyspace is “amazingly phenomenological. You can’t really understand how it’s done, and that’s even as somebody who knows the technology behind it.”

Friends Seminary students have used Skyspace in many different ways—as a place for meditation, a venue for art and graphic-design classes, or simply a “third space” to inspire creativity outside the regular classroom. “For me,” Nieminen says, “one of the most compelling things is that it will be an enriching experience for students, faculty, and administration for years to come.” As Turrell noted in The New York Times, “art connects us with both the sacred and profane in all of us, and that this can be before young students is of great interest to me.”

Halsband is proud to have collaborated on such an important installation. “This project really is about everything an architect is about. It’s not just, ‘oh, we have this cool idea, make it happen.’ Every person on the team had a responsibility to pull it off, and without that teamwork, it never would have happened. I think each person brought their own special skills, and that’s one of the nice things about it.”