No matter how many times I’ve glided into Center City along the Schuylkill Expressway or Kelly Drive, the first sighting of the craggy acropolis alongside the Art Museum still makes my heart flutter. The hill, dubbed “Faire Mount” by William Penn, and now ringed with Greek temples and classical pavilions, may be Philadelphia’s most celebrated and picturesque landscape, captured on everything from paintings to soup tureens.
And now that beloved view is about to change.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has just been given permission to install a permanent, modern pavilion with an interactive light show by artist James Turrell on the rocky promontory that juts out over the 19th-century Fairmount Water Works complex. Imagine a large white disk hovering on spindly legs, and you’ll have a good idea of what’s coming.
The project has not gone down well. At last week’s Historical Commission meeting, Turrell’s modern pavilion was denounced by one member as an alien “spaceship.” Several nationally prominent historians, including an official from the National Park Service, also spoke out against the project, warning that it could compromise the iconic landscape. Despite those concerns, the majority of the board proceeded to give the project a thumbs-up.
I never imagined I would write this, but the commission was not wrong.
Turrell is a widely respected artist whose work resonates beyond the usual museumgoing tribe. The rapper Drake paid tribute to his work with an admiring sample in last year’s Hotline Bling video. Yet Turrell’s computerized light installations, which involve a sequence of projected colored lights, are far more than crowd-pleasing spectacles. His work demands long periods of observation and contemplation and strives to connect viewers with the unknown realm beyond our perception — in other words, the divine.
Turrell, who was raised a Quaker, has fashioned himself as an artistic missionary, and he has been bringing the interactive works he calls Skyspaces to communities around the country. Philadelphians were introduced to Turrell’s mystical aesthetic when he incorporated a Skyspace in 2013 in the new Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House. That was installation number 84. It is a thrillingly trippy experience.
It is also a little out of the way for many Philadelphians and tourists. With this more central location, the art museum’s proposed Skyspace will allow his experiential sculpture to be brought to a wider audience. Unlike the Chestnut Hill Skyspace, situated inside the meeting house, the museum pavilion will be a free-standing structure open on all sides, with bench seating for 24 people. An aperture in the canopy will offer a carefully framed view of the sky. The show consists of colored lights projected onto the underside of the canopy. As viewers gaze up at the opening, the sky will undergo a subtle metamorphosis, offering a new understanding of the world above our heads. The museum plans to hold two free 50-minute shows a day, at dawn and dusk.
Even its critics acknowledge that a Turrell Skyspace would be a coup for the museum. The artwork, which is being paid for by an anonymous donor, would be just the second commission the museum has ever implemented, after Sol Lewitt’s garden composition Lines in Four Directions with Flowers, which occupied a big chunk of the Fairmount hillside during its three-year run.
For the historians, the crucial difference is the Skyspace’s prominent location at the crown of the Fairmount hill, which was sculpted into its current form during the construction of the Waterworks. Like a great building or painting, that craggy landscape “is a work of art” and deserves to be respected, argues Michael J. Lewis, a Williams College art history professor who lives in Philadelphia.
Considered the most ambitious infrastructure project of its time, the Water Works provided Philadelphia with a stable supply of drinking water from 1812 to 1909, allowing it to grow into today’s metropolis. The engineering was such a technological marvel that it attracted visitors from around the world. The city built fanciful classical designs to house the engines and pumps, and laid out an ensemble of elegant gardens, paths, and pavilions. That space was the original Fairmount Park.
While the landscape may be a man-made work of art, it is not the same one that appears in the 19th-century paintings and prints. Indeed, one of the most notable aspects of the cliffside gardens is how often they have been altered in the name of functional and aesthetic demands. You know the hill that William Penn admired so much? Its top was lopped off in the early 19th century to create the Water Works’ reservoir. That reservoir, in turn, was replaced by the Art Museum in the 1920s — no small change to the historic vista. And who can ignore the looming presence of the Philadelphian, a modernist apartment building that seems from many vantage points to be encircling the rocky hill.
Given that constant evolution, Turrell’s Skyspace will be among the more minor intrusions on the Kelly Drive view. During a renovation of the cliffside gardens a decade ago, two 19th-century pavilions were recreated. Turrell’s Skyspace would line up with the replicas. Its roof would be the same height and color as its classical neighbor, the Mercury Pavilion, 60 feet away. It would also emulate its gazebo form.
But the historians are right that plans for Turrell’s project have not been given the kind of public airing that such an intervention deserves. While the project was reviewed and approved by the Art and Historical Commissions, the museum has an obligation to engage directly with the public.
While the light shows will be reservation-only, how will the pavilion be used the rest of the time? Will people line the path to gaze out from Turrell’s overlook or peer into the canopy’s oculus? Even now, the museum could mount a special exhibition or hold a forum to help people understand this most public of spaces.
It’s true that the Skyspace will never completely disappear into the hillside. But the pavilion, which is being collaboratively designed by KSK’s Philip Scott, promises to be recessive enough that its impact on the view will be minimal. Although the structure is sleekly modern in style, Turrell’s interest in the sublime is very much in keeping with the 19th-century Romantic aesthetic that inspired the cliffside gardens. There is even something heartening about an iconic and beloved landscape that continues to evolve and surprise us with new ways of looking at our city.
Note: The Sol Lewitt installation was commissioned by the Fairmount Park ArtAssociation and implemented by the Philadelphia art museum.