This Old Crater

A volcanic cinder cone near Flagstaff will soon become one of the world's most significant pieces of environmental art

A gale roaring up the side of Roden Crater, blasting construction grit and sand into the gray-bearded face of artist James Turrell, is making it tough for him to describe the serenity he envisions for this old volcano northeast of Flagstaff. He retreats a few paces down a cindery embankment into the shelter of the crater's immense, orange-and-rust-colored bowl.

"With all the construction going on," he says a bit wistfully above the roiling wind, "the crater is a little rough right now--you might say we've sort of broken eggs to make an omelet."

"Eggs" doesn't exactly cover it. One whole flank of the 550-foot mountain has been ripped from rim to base with a trench as wide as two earthmovers. The crater's top, an elliptical bowl the size of three football fields, is rutted and piled with mounds of excavated pumice and lava spew; a portable toilet sits off to the western side. The rim, which Turrell had scooped out and built into an ellipse in the 1980s, has been torn apart. And the eastern base of the mountain has been gutted for the construction of a lodge to house future overnight visitors to the crater.

To Turrell and others familiar with the sere beauty of this cinder cone before the heavy equipment moved in, the scene is bittersweet--but welcomed.

After years of false starts, dashed hopes, and more ups and downs than a theme-park ride, the flurry of hard hats and diesels marks the beginning of the end of Turrell's 25-year quest to turn the volcano overlooking the Painted Desert into what many believe will be one of the world's most significant and complex modern works of environmental art.

The Roden Crater Project will bring heaven to earth in ways that almost no other outpost of art or science does. Most astronomical observatories--including Flagstaff's Naval and Lowell observatories--rely on sophisticated telescopes, computers and other equipment to capture the light of celestial events. But Turrell's will be a lookout for the naked eye, a labyrinth of tunnels, walkways, rooms and other spaces where people can basically watch the changing daylight and nightlight in the sky.

"I've always wanted to make light something that you treasure," says the philosophical Turrell, who relocated to Flagstaff from California in the late 1970s. "Not just light reflected in glass, or in a scrim, or on the surface of some object. But light objectified.

"We generally use it to illuminate other things. But I wanted to force people to pay attention to the thingness and revelation of light. This is a place that will do that."

The first of an expected three rounds of construction, scheduled for completion later next year, will produce, among other things, an 854-foot tunnel that will telescope moonlight into a room bunkered into the northeast flank of the cone. Another portal at the high end of the tunnel will contain a bronze stairway to heaven. And the eye of the crater, connected by a short passageway to the tunnel, will hold a sunken plaza where visitors can lie on sandstone plinths and see the sky as Turrell wants it to be seen: as a vaulting expanse that appears almost within reach.

The project is so exceptional that before construction could begin, Coconino County had to add a "land art" category to its building code. The county researched the existing code, says plans examiner Gilbert Peru, and found that "about the closest match was an amusement structure."

But the unique intent and function of aspects of Turrell's design would have conflicted with the county's existing rules. They would have required illuminated exit signs in Turrell's light-sensitive viewing rooms, and a railing down the middle of the moon tunnel.

"What we realized," says John Farnol, another county plans examiner, "is we had to find a way for this project to live up to the spirit of the code in regards to safety, otherwise the county would never get something like the Statue of Liberty or the St. Louis Arch."

Turrell designed all the viewing rooms at the crater to be underground. Even the lodge is tucked into the side of the cone, so that once construction is done, the crater will show little disruption.

Future construction phases will include a second tunnel, numerous additional subterranean spaces--the entire plan calls for 23--and an amphitheater. They'll be added when the Skystone Foundation, a private nonprofit organization formed by Turrell in Flagstaff in 1982 to help promote and develop the project, finishes raising the more than $15 million that Turrell's entire plan is likely to cost.

Supporters inside and outside the art world say that Turrell's built-out idea will amount to a modern Stonehenge; a monument to human perception which--thanks to the grand scale of light and space in the West--will rank among the greatest works of American art.

The project has already been chronicled and critiqued--often as though it's finished--in dozens of art books and trade articles. Even though the mainstream press seems not to have stumbled on the project, art-world adulation is drawing tourists to the site from as far away as the Netherlands, Germany and Japan.

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