The exterior of the Aspen Art Museum, designed by Shigeru Ban. A slice of John Hodges's With Liberty and Justice For All (A Work in Progress) can be seen below. All images by the author for Hyperallergic.

The exterior of the Aspen Art Museum, designed by Shigeru Ban. A slice of John Hodges’s “With Liberty and Justice For All (A Work in Progress)” (2014) can be seen below. (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

Ban's famous paper tubes gird the inside of the museum, adding texture to the view from both sides.

Ban’s famous paper tubes gird the inside of the museum, adding texture to the view from both sides.

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.

The stairway ascent serves as the primary entrance into the Aspen Art Museum, and it makes the latticework even more pronounced.

The stairway ascent serves as the primary entrance into the Aspen Art Museum, and it emphasizes the latticework.

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.

A scale model of Ban's designs for shipping containers serving as temporary housing.

A scale model of Ban’s designs for shipping containers serving as temporary housing.

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.

The Miao MIao Paper Nursery School was designed to host two preschool classrooms temporarily after they lost their school in the 2013 Lushan earthquake in Sichuan, China.

The Miao Miao Paper Nursery School was designed to host two preschool classrooms temporarily after they lost their school in the 2013 Lushan earthquake in Sichuan, China.

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.

A visitor checks out Ban's Paper Partition System, set up after the Great Japan Earthquake and the 2011 tsunami.

A visitor checks out Ban’s Paper Partition System, set up after the Great Japan Earthquake and the 2011 tsunami.

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.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice. 

One reply on “Architecture for Humanity at the New Aspen Art Museum”

  1. Not so fast.

    Limousine liberals love to preach tolerance, yet have none.

    The museum which made worldwide headlines by banning the leader of Occupy Wall Street Aspen from its premises several years ago went even further by banning a senior citizen on oxygen, an Aspen community member for over 40 years, from its premises for taking over 1500 signatures protesting the museum’s non-transparent, secretive bypassing of the normal approval process (in a town of 7000+) to Aspen’s City Council. [For documentation, see Aspen Police Report #4456].

    And from the Aspen Daily News on the museum’s lovely decision to ax the Valley Kids Show, deeming it “refrigerator art:” ———

    What kind of art institution bans senior citizens on oxygen and kicks the local kids’ show out?

    The original article has gone viral on art websites:

    Aspen Art Museum wall climbers winding through city court system


    Comments (6)

    Photo courtesy of Cooper Means Aspenites Cooper Means and Lauren Twohig posed for this picture on the Aspen Art Museum wall on Aug. 10. The college students, who were issued citations by Aspen police, said they were barely one foot from the ground and didn’t climb any higher.

    Andre Salvail The Aspen Times

    What’s the price for climbing the wooden-basket facade of the 47-foot-tall Aspen Art Museum?

    As three people without criminal records have learned, it’s a $150 probation fee, 10 hours of useful community service and a one-year deferred judgment on a municipal trespassing charge.

    And they’ll get one more thing: a warning from Aspen Municipal Court Judge Brooke Peterson to stay out of trouble. If any of the perpetrators should get arrested again over the course of the next 12 months, they might find themselves back in Peterson’s courtroom — a meeting room in the basement of Aspen City Hall — facing a fine of as much as $2,600 or jail time.

    Peterson handed down the latest deferred judgment to Aspen resident William Johnson, 29, on Wednesday morning. Johnson didn’t say much in court but told Peterson he had three or four beers before committing the infraction, which a police summons says occurred just after midnight on Sept. 9.

    Johnson said he didn’t see the “No Climbing” sign on the side of the new $45 million museum, which has been a source of controversy since even before it won City Council approval in August 2010. Critics have claimed the 33,000-square-foot structure is too big and its design is completely out of character for downtown Aspen. Some have contended that the process leading to its approval was rushed and conducted under the threat of litigation.

    In court, Johnson didn’t voice any concerns about the politics behind the museum. He said he is a restaurant owner in Aspen Highlands.

    “Has anyone ever tried to climb your building?” Peterson asked, failing to get much of a reply.

    City Attorney Jim True commented that of all the people who have been cited for climbing the museum, Johnson was among the more successful — although he never reached the top.

    “I think he got a little higher than most,” True said.

    Aspen natives Cooper Means, 22, and Lauren Twohig, 20, both college students in Prescott, Arizona, only got a couple of feet off the ground on the evening of Aug. 10 — the day after the museum opened — before a museum security guard confronted them.

    Means said he and his friend weren’t trying to scale the building but were merely posing for a photograph. After the security guard tried to detain them, they walked away, toward City Market. The guard and an Aspen policeman tracked them down inside the grocery store.

    They settled the matter with the court before returning to college in late August.

    “We didn’t climb it,” Means said Wednesday. “The point was to take a photograph. We only got 15 inches off the ground before we were immediately confronted by a museum security guard who thought we were going to climb it.”

    Means, a design student, said he is no fan of the museum. He grew up in Aspen and doesn’t see the building’s exterior or interior as things that belong here.

    “It’s the worst thing to happen to Aspen since I was born there,” he said. “The old art museum was a great place to go with local artists and fun people to talk with. Now the museum is part of the ‘art industry.’ You go up Aspen or Shadow or Smuggler Mountain, and it stands out. It wasn’t designed as a part of the town.”

    The facade that is attracting climbers is made of a material called Prodema, a composite of wood and paper pulp reinforced by resin and encased in a wood veneer.

    “It’s sturdy. It’s definitely climbable,” Means said.

    Controversial Aspen artist Lee Mulcahy — who is barred from the museum because of an incident in November 2011 in which museum officials alleged that he placed “For Sale” signs around the future site — is offering $500 to anyone who climbs at least three-quarters of the way up the building.

    To claim what he calls the “$500 Wild West Bounty,” a person has to provide photographic evidence and post it on Twitter. While the dare may seem dangerous, Mulcahy said it’s much riskier to scale cliff walls on the mountainsides up Independence Pass.

    Why the bounty? Mulcahy, a Libertarian candidate for the upcoming Senate District 5 race, said it’s because of the sculpture that the museum placed outside the building in large, capital letters: “WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.”

    “Liberty and justice for all, except for artists and others banned for disagreeing with the museum’s policies,” he said.

    Jeff Murcko, communications director for the museum, said that security guards will continue to monitor the facade and alert police of any suspicious activity.

    “We have a zero-tolerance policy for climbing the wall,” he said.

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