What is the Roden Crater?

Imagine a volcano powerful enough to leave a massive crater in the Earth that could be seen from space. Now imagine that to a satellite observing it from above, the crater looked very much like an eyeball. And imagine that this same Wplace was bought by an internationally-renowned artist for the sake of turning it into the largest public art project in history.

This describes the Roden Crater perfectly, the remains of an extinct volcano located near Flagstaff, Arizona, on the edge of the Painted Desert that has since become an art project to James Turell – a man with some pretty unique artistic sensibilities!

The crater is a cinder-type volcanic cone – a hill that formed around a volcanic vent – that measures 3.2 km (2 miles) wide, 183 meters (600 feet) tall, and which is approximately 400,000 years old. Located northeast of the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, the volcano is part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field near the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon.

James Turell’s Project:
In 1979, it was bought by artist James Turrell, who intends to turn it into a massive, open air work of art. James Turrell has long been famous in the art world for his unique take on creating art. Turrell purchased the land surrounding the crater – roughly 4.8 km (3 miles) across – with the intent of creating a naked-eye observatory at the inner core, specifically so guests could view and experience sky-light, solar, and celestial phenomena.

The Roden Crater, viewed from ground level at sunset. Credit: rodencrater.com
The Roden Crater, viewed from ground level at sunset. Credit: rodencrater.com

Turrell is known within the art community for the way his art plays with light and space. In 1974, he began conceiving of a project that would involve a natural setting, one that extended his explorations of light and space from the studio into the western landscape.

For this reason, he purchased the Roden Crater grounds with the hopes of using the types of visual phenomena that have excited and inspired humanity since the dawn of civilization – i.e. looking up at the stars – and creating a space where it could interplay with his artwork.

As Turrell has stated, he was also inspired by ancient observatories because of the way these places were geared to visual perception: “I admire Borobudur, Angkor Wat, Pagan, Machu Picchu, the Mayan pyramids, the Egyptian pyramids, Herodium, Old Sarum, Newgrange and the Maes Howe,” he said. “These places and structures have certainly influenced my thinking. These thoughts will find concurrence in Roden Crater.”

Eye-Witness Accounts:
This project has been the most massive public art undertaking to date. It has also sparked intense interest due to the fact that the observatory is restricted from the public. No one is allowed into the crater unless invited by the artist himself.

Typically though, those invited have made large contributions to the project or have commissioned other works of art from Turrell. Many well known art dealers and other important figures in the art world have seen the crater, and those who have witnessed it have described it as an incredible sight.

The Alpha Tunnel, one of many features that play into . Credit: rodencrater.com
The Alpha Tunnel, one of many features that play into Turrell’s concepts of space and light. Credit: rodencrater.com

The desire to see the crater has even led some fans to trespass, which may involve hiking through the desert to get to the very remote location. Some have taken photos of the crater and posted them on the internet, although some of those visitors discourage people from taking the trip. Essentially, the location is potentially dangerous due to extremely isolation and the fact that it is far from any major roads.

James Turrell does not take a typical approach to art. After he bought the crater, he started excavating tons of earth – over 86,000 cubic meters (1.3 million cubic yards) to be exact – in order to shape the Crater Bowl and hollow out tunnels and chambers. He tried to make different viewing areas, so the light, astronomical features, and sky could be seen from inside the crater. Essentially, he tried to turn a space itself into art.

Visitors have commented on the bronze staircase leading out of the crater. A musician who visited the grounds also talked about playing the drums in a sound chamber and said that it was an amazing experience. Those who have been to the crater have not said too much about their experiences though, thus ensuring that the public is left to wonder about much of it.

The East Portal staircase. Credit: rodencrater.com
The East Portal staircase, made out of bronze, which leads guests out of the crater. Credit: rodencrater.com

Originally, the Roden Crater was supposed to be finished in the late 1980’s. However, the date of completion has been pushed back a number of times due to financial issues (among other problems) which caused construction to halt at different times. Recently, Turrell estimated that construction would be completed by 2011; but once again, there have been delays.

According to the Roden Crater website, the South Space – which is the last section waiting to be built – is in the final stages of engineering. A public opening for the project is anticipated in the next few years once this complete, but will be “dependent on fundraising and construction schedules.”

Some speculate that once the Roden Crater is finished it is going to be one of the hottest things in the art world. But don’t expect an invite anytime soon. If there’s one thing hot-ticket items like this are known for, it’s being inaccessible!

Be sure to enjoy this video of the Roden Crater and Turrell’s massive art project:

We have many articles here at Universe Today on the subject of famous volcanoes and extinct volcanoes.

You should also check out secret art and the Roden Crater project.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on volcanoes.