Richard Torchia: The Harris Observatory

The Harris Observatory, a temporary project by Philadelphia-based artist RICHARD TORCHIA is the first of a series of projects developed for CENTERpieces, a cultural initiative of planned architectural interventions using vernacular structures.

Dome building under construction, The Center for Discovery, Harris, New York, 1984.

Torchia's project converts a disused 20-foot high geodesic dome located on The Center's south campus into an immersive light installation powered solely by the sun. Viewers walking into the dome will find themselves beneath a canopy of thousands of holes drilled into the ceiling that attempts to chart the stars present behind the daytime sky. Lenses placed in the dome's lower windows throw camera obscura projections onto hand-held screens. The large open space, which appears entirely empty at first, becomes dense with live, inverted images of clouds, trees, and wildlife. 

Originally constructed from a kit by Center staff in 1984, the dome building has quietly embodied The Center’s visionary commitment to green architecture that remains one of the organization's hallmarks. In recognizing the need to demolish the structure, The Center opened it to curators Julie Courtney and Jennie Shanker who identified the building as a unique opportunity for Torchia and his work.

The resulting project, The Harris Observatory, conflates the fate of the dome building with the history of geodesic structures and the evolution of the planetarium. The first dome to be called “geodesic” was completed by Walther Bauersfeld in 1923, twenty years before Buckminster Fuller’s research popularized the form. Bauersfeld, chief design engineer of the Zeiss Optical Company, adapted the geodesic framework for what is now considered the first modern planetarium. Still extant, its union of "school, theatre, and cinema in one classroom under the eternal dome of the sky" serves as model for the project.

Richard Torchia has developed sited camera obscura projections for venues across the United States and in Europe since 1990. Marquee, a permanent public work created in collaboration with Greenhouse Media (Aaron Igler and Matt Suib), opened in Philadelphia in October 2010. Since 1997 he has been director of Arcadia University Art Gallery, Glenside, Pennsylvania. 

The Center for Discovery is an organization renowned for the educational, clinical, residential, social and creative arts experiences it provides to children and adults with significant intellectual disabilities and medical frailties.  What distinguishes The Center is its philosophy of creating challenging, accessible, healthy, loving, supportive and homelike educational and work settings in which the children and adults can develop relationships, learn and grow, and foster new social and artistic skills. The agency’s mission is to offer these individuals and their families innovative educational and social experiences, enriching their lives through personal growth. The end result is increased independence and improved interpersonal abilities for each individual.  
For information about The Center for Discovery:

CENTERpieces is a new cultural initiative co-curated by independent curator Julie Courtney ( and artist Jennie Shanker ( It aims to transform abandoned buildings and empty lots into universally designed artworks and public gathering places, creating temporary projects that will fascinate, educate, integrate and create community, vitality and tourism in an underserved region of the Catskills. With the intent to commission several multi-year projects over time, CENTERpieces becomes, in essence, an innovative sculpture park that dots numerous sites throughout the region.
For information about CENTERpieces:

The Harris Observatory 
Open by appointment:

For more information contact
Julie Courtney   tel: 215-840-8919
Jennie Shanker  tel:215-917-4373

Google map directions:

CENTERpieces is supported in part by generous donations from Carole Haas Gravagno and Mike Rodell. Special thanks to The Center for Discovery for hosting The Harris Observatory.

ARCHIVE: Richard Torchia's Harris Observatory:

Work in Progress
Located near the entrance of the Center for Discovery's south campus is a building distinguished by a pair of identical 20'-high geodesic domes connected by a sequence of smaller rooms. 

Aerial view of geodesic domes at The Center for Discovery.

Constructed from a kit in the mid-eighties, the building was originally used as an auditorium but also served as a dynamic symbol of the Center's forward-looking vision. 

View of the north dome looking east.

Given each domes’ five hexagonal skylights and multiple eye-level windows, we proposed that artist Richard Torchia consider the building as a possible setting for a camera obscura project.

Employing a range of lenses and pinholes, which he mounts into the existing windows of the structures in which he works, Torchia has maintained a 20-year practice that incorporates the projection of live images of illuminated objects and views onto a range of surfaces within darkened spaces. Viewers encountering these projections—analogous to those cast onto our retinas—are given an opportunity to reorient their relationship to the world in ways that can be surprisingly visceral and immediate. 

Front projection of lichen-covered tree thrown onto an opaque surface. 

The images’ dependence on the presence of actual objects illuminated by sunlight, combined with their unavoidable inversion, helps alert viewers to elemental phenomena that they might otherwise overlook. Whether depicting a landscape or drops of water held momentarily on a window screen, each projection makes a subject of light, time, gravity, and perspective while demonstrating the mechanics of vision to viewers of all backgrounds.

As represented in one of these live images, the movement of wind-blown foliage  detached from its usual place in the scheme of things without surrendering any of its vitality  can seem like an event, something we are witnessing for the first time. Many of the projections play with our understanding of distance. Things assumed to be beyond reach are brought close at hand, confounding the visual and the tactile in unexpected ways.  Viewers watching clouds projected in real time gliding across the floor on which they are standing are invited to re-imagine the sky and their relationship to it in ways that can be experienced physically long before the mind has a chance to make sense of what it is seeing.

Live image of clouds rear-projected onto translucent disc.

Torchia visited the domes in March of this year and concurred that their multiple apertures, as well the diversity of their views and range of possible subjects, made the building an ideal structure to transform into an optical laboratory. 

View through lens focused on window screen holding water drops. 

The building, which presently has no electric current, is perfect for staging projections generated by daylight alone. Its open, barrier-free interior space makes the building well-suited for the large images created by the telescope lenses Torchia employs.

Live projection of water drops on window screen (lit by sunlight reflected from a mirror) thrown onto floor.

The history of the projected image has additional relevance within this architectural form. The first dome ever to be called “geodesic” was designed by Walther Bauersfeld in 1923, twenty years before Buckminster Fuller worked out the math that led to the form's widespread applications in the mid-20th century. Chief engineer of the Zeiss Corporation, a lens-producing company based in Jena, GermanyBauersfeld developed the geodesic framework for a planetarium to house a star projector. After two working visits at the site, Torchia has started to think of the building not so much as a structure to study projected simulations of the night sky but as a daytime observatory to explore images of more proximate subjects, including earth’s own star (the sun), views of the Center’s campus, its plant and animal life, as well as the daily traffic of the residents and their caregivers.

Northern view of grounds and paths projected onto plastic sheet by telescope lens.

While adept at isolating objects from the chaos of their physical contexts, these projections also help frame causal relationships between natural forces and their visual effects that often elude conscious awareness. This is especially the case for viewers with routine access to such images. Those visiting the same projection on a daily basis, or several times over the course of the day, for example, have an opportunity to make a connection between the rotation of the earth and its impact on the changing light illuminating a given landscape. Watching a live projection of the sun inch across the floor, viewers can experience the speed of the planet turning. Every projection, in its way, assumes the nature of a clock, not ticking but proceeding organically, keeping silent pace with the music of the spheres. 

Sun and sky projected onto the floor by telescope lens.

The camera obscura can be regarded as a physical instrument as well as one of several means by which nature is capable of forming live representations, shadows and reflections being two more familiar examples. The phenomenon is founded on the fact that light travels in straight lines. These rays (sometimes called “pencils of light”), when reflected from an illuminated object and passing through a hole or lens into a dark space will form an inverted image of that object on a screen opposite the aperture.

Illustration of camera obscura.

Often considered in a limited way as a precursor to photography, the camera obscura has a complex cultural history that reaches back to the moment Aristotle first noticed images of an eclipse projected by pinhole-like gaps between leaves onto the shaded ground beneath a plane tree. Eventually recognized by astronomers as a safe way to study the sun, the camera obscura came to serve as a paradigm for the assumed transparency of visual perception. The widespread addition of lenses in the 16th-century transformed the scientific apparatus into a tool used by magicians and artists alike to conjure images before audiences or trace on paper. These spectral moving pictures—always in color and always made of racing light, even when their subjects appear static—stubbornly resist representation. Thus, in these blog images, what you can't experience is the continuous, live state of the projections, a condition tantamount to kind of performance enacted by both subject and viewer.