Here's James Turrell and David Adjaye on Light, Space, and Architecture

The White House's South by South Lawn festival brought light artist James Turrell and architect David Adjaye into conversation. It was awesome.

by Nathaniel Ainley
Oct 11 2016, 4:35pm

Screencaps by the author, via

Last week, the White House held its very own arts and culture festival in D.C., South by South Lawn (SXSL). Organizers arranged a list of panel discussions and programs that brought together a diverse troupe of creatives for a "festival of ideas, art, and action.” SXSL kicked off with a conversation between illustrious light artist James Turrell and award-winning architect David Adjaye, which was streamed live on The Creators Project’s Facebook Page. Over the course of their chat, which was moderated by LACMA director Michael Govan, the two artists unpacked their general philosophies on art, light, space, and culture, and discussed some of the influences that have driven their processes and works. They contemplated the challenges they’ve encountered and the rewards they’ve gained over years of hard work.

The event came at a momentous time for both men, Adjaye having recently unveiled the National Museum of African American History and Culture, while Turrell’s Roden Crater, a massive architectural landwork located atop a volcanic cinder cone in Northern Arizona, inched ever closer to completion. At the beginning of the talk, Turrell commented on the physical aspects of light and its centrality to the study of art history. As a student, his first interaction with art was through a projector in a classroom at Pomona College, and thus, from the start of his career, the use of light was paramount to him. He recalled experiencing a show of works by Lichtenstein and Rothko, and how light was both contained in their paintings and radiating from them.

As audiences viewed slides of Turrell’s earliest works in projection, the artist described learning to use light as a medium: “If you’re on stage, and you have all the footlights and the stage lighting on you, sometimes there’s so much light that you can’t see the audience. So you’re in the same architectural, physical space as the audience, but a completely different visual space. No different than when the light of the sun lights the atmosphere, you can’t see through the atmosphere to see the stars that are there… This was something that thrilled me, as an artist, to work with.”

Turrell, however, explained how you can’t mix light like you can paint. His interests led him to study the spectrum of visible light as well as the laws of perception. Around this time, the diorama paintings of Louis Daguerre, and American scientist Edwin Land’s theories on color, had major influences on him.

The conversation then briefly turned to Turrell’s pyramid installation at Saint Lucia Sculpture Park in the Yucatan, and how certain physical elements were eventually recreated for Roden Crater. The latter large-scale artwork is located in the painted desert area of Arizona. The architectural complex establishes a series of rooms and tunnels that play with the surrounding area’s natural elements, and the result is an immersive space wherein visitors can experience and contemplate natural light—it’s been described as the culmination of the artist’s lifelong study of light and perception.

Following the talk, The Creators Project asked James Turrell about how he manipulates light and space to control a person's movements and gaze. “It's not about controlling a person's movements and gaze,” he explained to us via email, “but about creating one's own perception. If I change your circumstance or your context of vision, then I can change the color of the sky. Roden Crater is taking the nature of perception into nature and telling the story of how we see the sky and how our perception, our seeing, forms the sky.”

“I am setting the stage for the viewer but the self-interpretation and discovery are completed by the viewer,” he continued. “We are definitely part of creating that which we behold and I merely bring that to the viewer’s attention.”

As the focus of the conversation moved to David Adjaye, the architect opened with a general discussion about how he uses light to create color and atmosphere. He discussed architecture’s unique ability to create spaces that feel bigger on the inside than they do on the outside, a phenomena Turrell related to the effect music has on the feeling of a room’s size.

The duo discussed the William O. Lockridge Library, and how Adjaye incorporated elements from neighborhood buildings into his final design, creating a familiar and inclusive exterior space. Some of Adjaye’s most significant works, in fact, have been libraries. Following SXSL, we asked David Adjaye why he thinks public spaces like the William O. Lockridge Library are so important to the growth of a society or culture, and whether social cohesion is something he strives for in his work. “Public spaces are social resources, whether for education, recreation, or development of a sense of place and belonging,” he told The Creators Project via email. “This has been the case for as long as there has been architecture.”

“What I’m interested in, then, is the parameters of that publicness,” Adjaye continued. “Who gets to belong? Who gets to feel that these resources are for them? Changing those parameters, for me, is essential for progress. Bringing more people into these spaces and allowing them to feel engaged is at the heart of the democratic project.”

Beyond a building’s ability to reshape an area spatially, architecture can inspire new ways of thinking about physical spaces and the way we interact in them. The Creators Project also asked about the role empathy plays in his works. “Empathy is incredibly important in a variety of senses,” Adjaye told us. “It is essential to have a genuine understanding of who you are designing for and what their needs for the space are; without this understanding, your design will lack specificity, which in my opinion is the quickest route to failure. Without empathy, the design won’t resonate with its users and it won’t be able to achieve its ambitions, whether as a learning space, a social hub or a space for community.

“Similarly,” Adjaye concluded, “empathy for context is also crucial for my design process. I cannot design without an in depth understanding of where I am working: its history, geography, climate and culture. That information provides the raw data from which to begin designing. Architecture should always be responsive to its surroundings.”

Watch James Turrell and David Adjaye’s South by South Lawn conversation in its entirety, below:

The first-ever South by South Lawn took place on October 3, 2016. For more information about the event, click here.


James Turrell Illuminates a Memorial Chapel in a Berlin Cemetery

Body Drawings on the White House Lawn | Monday Insta Illustrator

Early James Turrell Works Reveal a Master in the Making