Architect Shida Du finds uplift in the underground Sky Pesher

By Amy Goetzman

Many visitors to the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden never even notice one of the most astonishing works on the 19-acre campus. James Turrell’s Sky Pesher doesn’t stand out—it stands under. Or rather, visitors stand over it. Or they walk into it. Tucked into a hillside, this remarkable installation could be mistaken for a utility vent or a discreet staff entrance to the Walker. Shida Du, AIA, an architect with BWBR in St. Paul, discovered Sky Pesher by accident years ago, when he was touring the garden with a class as a graduate student.

“I saw the cutout of an entry, and I thought it was another opening to the gallery,” he says. Curious, he walked inside and discovered one of the Twin Cities’ most special, almost-secret spaces. Just 16 feet square, the concrete-lined room offers a deeply contemplative reprieve from the city. Its only adornment, a large skylight opening, perfectly frames the ever-changing sky. A continuous bench is integrated into the perimeter of the room, and Du and his classmates sat down for perhaps half an hour to experience the piece. He’s been back numerous times.

“It’s not categorically architectural. It lies somewhere between fine art and architecture—a hybrid,” he says. “The space has several very subtle nuances that are artistic and ergonomic. The walls are slightly tilted toward the sky, and the benches seem to be as well, so your attention is directed to the ceiling.”

Sky Pesher, one of several Skyspaces designed by Turrell, also has otherworldly sonic qualities. It’s hosted small concerts and weddings, and Cantus, a men’s vocal ensemble, has recorded inside it. During his first visit, Du noticed that he and his classmates lowered their voices in response to the echo effect the chamber created. “It’s not conducive to long conversations! But it does filter out the daily noise of the world, and that allows you to reflect,” says Du. “So much architecture performs for you. This space takes a step back to make room for your thoughts. In practice, the mission of architecture should be to form a space to accommodate something higher.”

“Something higher” doesn’t have to mean something bold or grandiose, says Du. “Most shelters are built so that families can dwell and prosper,” he says. “Architecture is sometimes instead about ego, economics, and public attention. Perhaps it shouldn’t be about itself but about the life that occurs inside.”

Du is the winner of the 2018 Ralph Rapson Traveling Fellowship design competition. He plans to spend six weeks in Nepal and China’s Sichuan Province to observe how the two countries have approached rebuilding after devastating earthquakes. China relocated the entire population and built new. Nepal, home to 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites, is rebuilding slowly. “This allows Nepal to continue without losing the nuance, richness, and essence of ordinary life,” says Du. “It could be a model for American society as we struggle to accommodate housing after disasters and other situations. Building a new city, as China did, is an impressive undertaking. But it’s meaningful to a culture to let some things remain the same.”

Perhaps it’s his appreciation of what endures that makes Sky Pesher such an inspiring space for Du; the chamber’s simplicity amplifies the life around it. “The piece itself is always the same—so still and constant,” he adds. “But that opening makes it a dynamic experience as the light, the weather, and the seasons change. Even time becomes a tangible force around you. Sky Pesher is a benchmark around which everything seems to move.”