ASPEN, Colorado — Despite its reputation as a resort town for the 1%, the heart of Aspen looks much like a classic Western American town, with low brick buildings and charming squares perfect for people watching. Some of the trappings of wealth — like Prada and Gucci stores and the prevalence of private jets on the airport’s runways — make clear at least one of the demographics of the town, but it’s also home of the nation’s first rural rapid transit system, and the Aspen-Snowmass area in general remains a popular destination for the middle class.
The new Aspen Art Museum, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban, stands out in this context in both height and design. Its lattice exterior, constructed of resin-coated paper over glass, towers above the majority of buildings in the area, and it stands out as a clear landmark. Jim Hodges’s “With Liberty And Justice For All (A Work in Progress)” (2014) sculpture shimmers outside at the ground floor, almost matching the gorgeous array of colors typical of a Southwestern sunset.
Visitors are encouraged to enter from the top floor, with stairs leading straight to the open rooftop (where Cai Guo-Qiang’s infamous iPad-toting turtles previously resided) and head downward into different gallery spaces. “It is like the experience of skiing,” wrote Ban in his design statement, “you go up to the top of a mountain, enjoy the view, and then slide down.” The vertical orientation of the building seems counterintuitive at first but well attuned to how many people experience Aspen — rather than hiking up mountains, they take a gondola and descend via skis; rather than driving up, they fly into the small airport. And so much of the ascent is impressive, with a scattering of light through the latticework combined with an anticipatory view into the galleries thanks to glass walls. Contra the Guggenheim experience of ascent, the Aspen Art Museum starts with a view of the city and mountains, a moment of reflection and awe at Colorado’s breathtaking landscapes.
As visitors descend, it’s like a goodbye to nature for a while and an entrance into more traditional white box spaces. But after exiting each space, they are treated to undulations of Ban’s famous paper tubes, which line the ceilings and walls in different places. They contrast with the large elevator he calls the “Moving Glass Room,” which he says in a design statement that it “gives the corner of the building motion and can be seen even from far away.” The galleries currently house pieces by Yves Klein and David Hammons, a collection of minerals from Colorado, and other works, and the rooms contain fewer artistic flourishes, perhaps to avoid interfering with the art works. By the time visitors reach the underground level, they can actually sit on a bench made of long paper tubes, a nice tactile feature that satisfies curiosity about just how sturdy those tubes are.
In Ban’s designs, it’s the tension of glass and paper, height and descent, that bring to life to this next iteration of the museum, which previously was housed in a power plant outside town. Opened officially to the public early August, the space has no permanent collection. Instead, it will follow the kunsthalle tradition common in Europe (Berlin, for instance) and Asia (Seoul), hosting ongoing exhibitions that will be open for free to the general public. It’s also the perfect site for a look at Ban’s humanitarian oeuvre; in a space he designed with the financial support of some of the wealthiest people in the world, we also see the works he’s designed for some of the most vulnerable.
Curated by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, Humanitarian Architecture takes visitors through another use of his characteristic paper tubes, starting with his initial designs for survivors of Rwanda’s civil war and Japan’s the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. His ongoing practice of humanitarian design has ranged from housing for survivors of Hurricane Katrina to the 2001 Gujarat Earthquake and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. Four full-scale examples of his work grace the top gallery space, along with miniature models and photos of numerous others, including temporary housing made of shipping containers in Japan to a full cathedral in New Zealand. That these designs are meant to be temporary stands in contrast with the implied permanence of the museum surrounding the exhibition.
“Simply stated,” Jacobson wrote in a curatorial essay, “Ban understands the ability of architecture to provide both grace and dignity and has chosen to honorably offer his ideas to those who are often overlooked.” The strength of the exhibition helps us see that Ban’s repurposing of paper materials can just as easily house priceless works of art as it can provide needed shelter for people undergoing unimaginable suffering. When announcing Ban as a winner, the Pritzker Prize jury noted his “experimental approach to common materials such as paper tubes and shipping containers, his structural innovations, and creative use of unconventional materials such as bamboo, fabric, paper, and composites of recycled paper fiber and plastics.” His broad range of applications for these materials reflects his dexterity with architectural scale.
However, while the humanitarian and ecological value of these designs is worthy of celebration, something about the full breadth of these solutions is uncomfortable. I had to wonder why such structures needed to exist at all. This past August, there were at least two major earthquakes in the world, and the difference in their impact is striking. The recent earthquake in Napa Valley, 6.0 on the Richter scale, caused an estimated $4 billion in losses, and injuries ranged in the hundreds, not thousands. Though no doubt tragic, the aftermath stands in contrast to the recent 6.1 earthquake in Yunnan, China, where over 600 people died and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. As is common in the developing world, denser living, and lax building regulations result in more fatalities and displacement.
These examples help show that earthquakes may be natural disasters, but the lives and lifestyles affected by them are more often the result of the basic social inequities long predating the quake itself. Ban’s humanitarian efforts are commendable, and his stellar designs for the wealthy capture the beauty of the sites and materials he works with. The Aspen Art Museum and the accompanying exhibition of his work stand as a stunning example of that. Part of me hopes that we see more architectural practices focused on preventing the disasters in the first place, through earthquake-resilient construction and advocacy for better urban planning policies in vulnerable parts of the world. Maybe a future Pritzker Prize winner will be celebrated for his or her activism as much as for great design.