Like most first-time visitors to Aspen, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Elizabeth Paepcke originally came to ski. The year was 1939, and the town, a former centre of the silver-mining industry, was a ghost of what it had been during the boom times before Congress abandoned the silver standard. Even so, she loved what she found, as in time did her husband, Walter, a wealthy Chicago businessman.
Together they decided to revive the town, founding not just the Aspen Skiing Company (which still operates the ski lifts, pistes and most celebrated hotel, the Little Nell) but also the Aspen Institute, a think-tank-cum-arts centre. They envisaged Aspen as “a utopian community of the mind and body where [man] can earn a living and profit from healthy physical recreation, with facilities at hand for the enjoyment of art” – a place of lofty ideals, high culture, fresh air and exercise. Which is essentially what it has become: a resort to which members of the plutocracy come to stretch their bodies and stimulate their minds. No surprise then that, although its permanent population stands at about 6,600, there were around 200 private jets parked at its little airport on the Fourth of July.
This year, however, Aspen’s cultural life has become richer still. Last weekend the new Aspen Art Museum opened to the public in a remarkable building by Shigeru Ban, the Japanese architect who was awarded the Pritzker Prize in March. “It’s the first real expression of culture downtown,” says Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, its director and chief executive. Unlike the museum’s original home, in what was once the first hydroelectric plant west of the Mississippi, it is now located right in the heart of the town’s compact 19th-century grid.
The new building is a four-floor glass box, wrapped in a screen crafted to look as though it has been woven from strips of wood (actually a proprietary composite product called Prodema). This transparency was important to the architect and to Zuckerman Jacobson so that, from its upper floors, visitors can marvel at the mountains and the entrance to Independence Pass, which marks the Continental Divide, and “because contemporary art can be intimidating so we felt it was important to allow people to glimpse what’s inside before going in”.
Inside, the construction is yet more striking and extraordinary. Great undulating curved trusses support its roof. Panels of opaque but translucent glass set into the floors allow light to filter down from the roof. And the curvaceous benches and rippling ceiling above the stairwell to the lower galleries are formed of cardboard tubes – a signature Ban developed for the humanitarian-relief architecture he is best known for. His temporary structures made using paper, cardboard, sandbags and beer crates have provided shelter for victims of disasters such as the earthquakes in Kobe, Christchurch and, last year, the Philippines.
There won’t be a permanent collection on display here. Rather, Zuckerman Jacobson calls it a Kunsthalle, meaning an ever-changing programme of temporary exhibitions will fill its six perfectly plain, LED-lit white galleries, their pristine surfaces untroubled by light switches, sensors or skirting (though the ceilings are, consequently, quite cluttered). This is architecture that seems to acknowledge it is secondary to the art and yet, in doing so, surpasses itself.
As to the art, an exhibition of Ban’s “humanitarian” architecture is currently on show in the largest space, while the rest is filled by works from Rosemarie Trockel, Tomma Abts, Jim Hodges, Yves Klein and David Hammons. Zuckerman Jacobson stresses that the museum “commissions a very high percentage of what we show”.
One site-specific installation it commissioned – “Moving Ghost Town” – has already proved controversial. The work, by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang (best known for the fireworks that opened and closed the Beijing Olympics), features three African Sulcata tortoises who roam the museum’s rooftop sculpture garden with iPads strapped to their backs. The iPads show footage of Colorado’s ghost towns, previously shot by the same tortoise-mounted devices. According to the museum, “forgotten stories of the once-prosperous ghost towns are retold from the tortoises’ perspective”, but animal-rights activities have seen it as simple abuse and started a petition in protest.
The museum benefits from the concentration of major collectors with homes in Aspen, who will lend art as well as providing financial support. Thanks, for example, to funding from philanthropists Amy and John Phelan – he an investment fund manager, she a former cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys – admission is free to all. When Zuckerman Jacobson recently curated a show of works by Agnes Martin, she says: “I just made about six phone calls.”
The AAM is a matter of minutes’ walking distance from the town’s best hotels. The Little Nell is the most well-known, as well as having the coolest ambience, kind staff, and an art collection including a fine array of Sean Scully watercolours and photographs by Walter Niedermayr. The venerable Jerome has doormen in Stetsons and the fabled J Bar, which Hunter S Thompson used as an office. The soulless St Regis has a blazing fire in reception, even when it’s 30C outside.
To get to the Powers Art Center, which opened last month, requires a car, but it is worth the trip. Located 28 miles northwest of Aspen on the road to Carbondale, on a cattle ranch established by the late lawyer-turned-publisher John Powers, the centre was established in his memory by his wife, Kimiko, and houses almost 300 works on paper by Jasper Johns and ceramics by Takashi Nakazato. The collection also runs to works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and other masters of American pop art of the 1960s and 1970s – many of whom were Powers’ friends – though, for the moment, these are not on show.
The collection is important by any standard but it is almost eclipsed by the building. It was designed by another Japanese architect, Hiroshi Nanamori, who has created a long, low, linear block of rough-hewn Colorado sandstone faced by a shallow pool, covering more than 500 sq metres, of black Cambrian granite that reflects the landscape, notably the views towards Mount Sopris and the purple-headed Elk Mountains. Surrounding the water a boxy construction of poured concrete columns frames each breathtaking view, like a gigantic brutalist pergola.
The third significant recent opening in the Roaring Fork Valley is the clunkily named Legacy of Herbert Bayer at the Aspen Institute, a revelatory exhibition devoted to the Bauhaus architect and artist brought in to transform the town by Walter Paepcke (at whose company, the Container Corporation of America, Austrian-born Bayer once headed the design department).
Bayer is less well known than his contemporaries at the Bauhaus – Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy et al – perhaps because, having emigrated from Germany in 1938, he spent so much of his life in out-of-the-way Aspen. He deserves greater recognition; as this display makes clear, he was an innovator across a range of disciplines from surrealist photography to colourful op art tapestry, from painting and sculpture to poster art and typography.
There is evidence of Bayer’s work all over the Aspen Institute campus, something of a sylvan glade surrounded by aspen trees. He designed the accommodation here, now the Meadows Resort Hotel, as well as the adjacent Health Center, hexagonal David Koch Seminar Building and the hexagonal tables within it. The idea was that by removing any suggestion of hierarchy, polygons of equal sides and angles encourage debate from which spring ideas.
The sgraffito mural (1953) on the wall of that building is Bayer’s too, as is the “Marble Garden” (1955), an arrangement of abandoned white slabs from the quarry that supplied the stone for the Lincoln Memorial.
Bayer’s contributions to the town itself, however, no longer endure. The restaurant at the top of the Silver Queen, the gondola that takes you to the peak of Aspen Mountain, is gone. And his outlandish reworking of the 19th-century Hotel Jerome – whitewashing its red-brick façade and picking out the arched lintels above its windows in a bright cobalt that has become known locally as Bayer Blue – has long since been sandblasted away in deference to the hotel’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, one of 29 buildings in town accorded the honour.
One can only imagine the public outcry at that intervention given the criticism some locals have directed at the new Art Museum building’s size and design. “We fight over everything in Aspen, but this is one of the most emotional fights I’ve seen,” Erik Skarvan, a local television host told the Aspen Times.
For all the enlightened thinking that goes on at the Aspen Institute, for all the city’s much-trumpeted tolerance (the disgraced cyclist and Aspen resident Lance Armstrong remains a trustee of the AAM), there is a constituency here that resists change and modernity and insists that it is out of keeping with the historic tenor of the town.
Take the 15-minute gondola trip to the top of Aspen Mountain (worth ascending for the views, the lupins and mariposa lilies that grow wild and the free guided hikes laid on by the Aspen Centre for Environmental Studies), and it’s clear that, however controversial its architecture, the AAM has been designed in response to the town’s heritage. Its footprint and proportions mirror those of the Jerome, which stands three blocks southeast. Even the reddish “woven” façade echoes the fancy brickwork around the parapet of the Victorian hotel, not to mention the colour of its bricks.
But then without a little discord now and then, Aspen might risk seeming a little too ideal. This is a place where you are less likely to encounter a mugger than a wandering bear (signs exhort you to “be bear aware”).
It is a place where, according to Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, inmates at the jail are known as “guests”, the better and faster to rehabilitate them, not least through the museum’s outreach programme. And the longer you stay here – thanks to the 2,400m altitude – the better your fitness and stamina should be when you return to lower elevations.
I couldn’t help feeling it was probably the most perfect place on earth, a place that true to the Paepckes’ ambitions stimulates the mind, tests the body and raises the spirits. Being here just feels good.
Photographs: Joel Samuelson; Alan Copson; David X Prutting