Roden Crater is an extinct volcanic cinder cone, situated at an elevation of approximately 5,400 feet in the San Francisco Volcanic Field near Arizona’s Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon. The roughly 400,000 year old, 600 foot tall red and black cinder cone is being turned into a monumental work of art and naked eye observatory by the artist James Turrell. Working with visual phenomena that have interested man since the dawn of civilization, the Roden Crater project will bring the light of the heavens down to earth, linking visitors with the celestial movements of planets, stars and distant galaxies. In addition to exploring the interplay of light and space in his art, Turrell has looked closely at the design of ancient observatories as places for visual perception:

I admire Borobudur, Angkor Wat, Pagan, Machu Picchu, the Mayan pyramids, the Egyptian pyramids, Herodium, Old Sarum, Newgrange and the Maes Howe. These places and structures have certainly influenced my thinking. These thoughts will find concurrence in Roden Crater.

(James Turrell, Fundacion NMAC).

In 1974, James Turrell conceived of a project for a natural setting that would extend his explorations of light and space from the studio into the western landscape. After an extensive search, Turrell was able to arrange the purchase of Roden Crater in 1977, with funding provided by the Dia Art Foundation, and construction began in 1979.

At Roden Crater I was interested in taking the cultural artifice of art out into the natural surround. I did not want the work to be a mark upon nature, but I wanted the work to be enfolded in nature in such a way that light from the sun, moon and stars empowered the spaces … I wanted an area where you had a sense of standing on the planet. I wanted an area of exposed geology like the Grand Canyon or the Painted Desert, where you could feel geologic time. Then in this stage set of geologic time, I wanted to make spaces that engaged celestial events in light so that the spaces performed a “music of the spheres” in light. The sequence of spaces, leading up to the final large space at the top of the crater, magnifies events. The work I do intensifies the experience of light by isolating it and occluding light from events not looked at. I have selected different portions of the sky and a limited number of events for each of the spaces. This is a reason for the large number of spaces.

(Air Mass, The South Bank Centre).

His vision for the project has changed somewhat over the years, as spaces were added or altered based on experience he gained in working with light, but remains consistent with the original plan for the site. When complete, the project will contain 20 spaces (some with more than one viewing space). The light within the spaces will come from many sources, and some effects will be familiar to those who have seen the artist’s installations and Skyspaces over the years. The relative remoteness of Roden Crater will require a journey and a commitment of time on the part of visitors, deepening the experience of discovery.

My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing. I’m also interested in the sense of presence of space; that is space where you feel a presence, almost an entity — that physical feeling and power that space can give.

Roden Crater has knowledge in it and it does something with that knowledge. Environmental events occur; a space lights up. Something happens in there, for a moment, or for a time. It is an eye, something that is itself perceiving. It is a piece that does not end. It is changed by the action of the sun, the moon, the cloud cover, by the day and the season that you’re there, it has visions, qualities and a universe of possibilities.

(Occluded Front, MOCA)

The first major phase of construction, including the movement of over 1.3 million cubic yards of earth to shape the Crater Bowl and the construction of the 854′ East Tunnel and related spaces, is now complete. Fundraising is underway for phase 2 and the design for the South Space, next to be built, is in final engineering. A public opening for the project is anticipated in the next few years, but will be dependent on fundraising and construction schedules. As construction on Roden Crater is ongoing, public visitation is not currently available. Please consider supporting the work’s completion by becoming a Friend of Roden Crater.

Art21 Interview

Video embedded with permission from Art21.

Skystone Foundation


The Skystone Foundation is the organization responsible for the fundraising, administration and realization of James Turrell’s Roden Crater project. The Foundation holds property that includes Roden Crater and adjacent land. The recently completed first phase of the project was accomplished with significant support from donors and partners, including the Lannan Foundation and Dia Center for the Arts.

To contact the Skystone Foundation please email info@rodencrater.com.