A hidden jewel in the Walker’s hillside

James Turrell’s Sky Pesher
The cave-like entrance to James Turrell’s Sky Pesher leads to a surprising experience of nature. Photos by Wynne Yelland

As an architect, I’m often asked a version of the question, “What’s your favorite building in town?” There are many solid options. The Crystal Court, the Weisman Art Museum, the Northrop Auditorium, the Purcell-Cutts House, the Minneapolis Grain Exchange and the state Capitol would all be good answers, brought to life by talented architects.

But my favorite wasn’t designed by an architect but an artist. It’s possible you’ve seen it without even knowing it was there.

Drive into the parking garage at the Walker Art Center and look up. You’ll see an enormous cube looming overhead. It just looks like a big utility structure. Yet it’s more majestic when experienced topside, through the cave-like entrance carved from the immaculately lush landscape of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Up there, you wouldn’t guess you’re above a parking ramp.

Forget the Instagram photo proving your visit to a cherry balanced on a spoon or a blue rooster with a provocative title. I recommend you meander up the zigzag path to Sky Pesher, a James Turrell masterpiece, and sit and stare at the sky for a half hour.

The first time I experienced Sky Pesher — something one experiences rather than sees — was almost 15 years ago. The Walker’s large 2005 expansion and Ralph Rapson’s old Guthrie Theater (not yet demolished) formed an enclosed court, an odd, back-of-the-house space over the new parking garage. I am often pulled, like a magnet, to these residual places, and so I wandered up there after a swing through the earlier — and may I say, better — version of the conservatory with the pond and Frank Gehry’s monumental glass fish.

Walking up and behind the old Guthrie, I came across a tunnel expecting it would lead to a subterranean room housing something like air handlers and roaring fans. I entered, thinking I might be stopped by a security guard, and found myself in the simplest of rooms — maybe 24 feet deep, wide and tall — with over-scaled concrete benches lining its four sides. A 16-by-16-foot knife’s-edge opening dominated the room, perfectly square and centered in the ceiling, framing a piece of the bright blue sky — on this day, studded with jewels of puffy white clouds. I couldn’t believe my dumb luck finding this, back by the dumpsters — so exquisitely detailed, monastically quiet and monumentally beautiful.

I still feel that awe each time I’m there, which I make sure is every time I visit the Walker. These days, with the hillside wide open and sculptures scattered about — art gravestones for the departed Guthrie — Sky Pesher has a more gracious entrance. Even so, I’m a little wistful for the sharp contrast of how it used to be — the surprise room by the garbage enclosures — and how alone I could be when there.

Recently I met with Joe King, the Walker’s director of registration, in Sky Pesher to gather some details.

The Walker commission is open daily 5 a.m.–midnight and is free to enter. The best time to experience it is at sunrise.

The bright white walls are painted with a theatrical reflective paint called “Off Broadway White White.”

Two-color (2400K and 3200K) cold-cathode ray lighting above the benches changes color and brightness over the course of the day, according to a software program the Walker changes every month. This old, and expensive, lighting technology is to be replaced by LED units in the spring of 2020, in collaboration with Turrell’s studio.

The concrete seats are heated in winter with electric coils — welcome in a room that is at outdoor air temperature.

The author’s sons, Morgan and Carter
The author’s sons, Morgan and Carter,
in the Sky Pesher space.

The room is constantly monitored by security cameras (awkward, as it was named Best Make-Out Spot by City Pages in 2009 — but hey, this is the Walker after all). You are welcome to take a nap inside as long as you are out by closing time. No unsanctioned pop-up dinner parties are allowed, but you might be able to eat your bag lunch uninterrupted, if you leave no trace.

It’s a great place for taking pictures of others; some of my favorite snapshots of my kids were taken there. King silently dodged answering my question about the most “interesting thing” that has been seen happening inside. What happens at the Walker…

After King left Sky Pesher, I leaned back on one of the cool concrete benches on a sweltering August afternoon, watching dragonflies dance in the sky. A group of 20-somethings charged in, all chatter and laughter, noise which died down as they entered and found me and a friend quietly sitting. Their young leader sat down next to me, visibly wrung out with the heat. “Yeah, so this guy, James Turrell, just got 10 mil from Kanye West to fund some enormous earth work out in Arizona [that would be Roden Crater, whippersnapper!], so I guess he’s some big deal.”  The group looked about, nodded, then filed out.

We were alone again, just the way I like to be in there, taking in all the details of the passing Midwestern sky, in the best space in the Twin Cities.

Wynne Yelland is an architect at Locus Architecture at 45th and Nicollet.