From glass mansions to wood-and-steel ski chalets to sprawling modern ranches, Aspen is home to some of the world’s finest architecture. But behind the glitz and glamour lies a storied history, which set this mountain town on a uniquely innovative and modern path. In our Spring 2015 issue, we explored the town’s history and the role world-class architecture played in putting this old mining town back on map. Read below for a portion of that article, or click HERE to see the full and original pdf.
Above image by Michael Moran.
Almost every detail of the Aspen Institute honors nature or functionality, sometimes both. The windows that enclose the campus’ conference rooms and the guest suites of the adjoining Meadows Resort offer floor-to-ceiling views of the awe-inspiring mountains. A series of colorful panels that look like an outdoor art installation actually served as a sunscreen for a pool long gone. “Everything is function over form in some way,” said Aimee Yllanes, sales and marketing coordinator for the resort. “Everything is clean and open.”
It took a true visionary to imagine the Institute, which in its more than 60 years has hosted an impressive list of photographers, architects, designers, and philosophers. Because when Walter Paepcke visited in the ’40s, Aspen was nothing more than a dilapidating former silver mining town tucked into the mountains. But the wealthy Chicago businessman saw something else. Inspired by the natural splendor and a similar feat in Chicago, he envisioned Aspen as a meeting place for some of the greatest minds of his generation. In 1950, he commissioned Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer to design the 40-acre campus, which houses the resort, the Institute, and the Aspen Center for Physics. In keeping with the Bauhaus style, Bayer incorporated function, simplicity, and much geometry into his design. The clean lines of the resort contrast with the mountains in the distance. Meeting rooms are spacious and simple.
Paepcke also created the International Design Conference, held annually between 1951 and 2004, and hosted a photographer’s summit attended by Ansel Adams, among others. The venerable futurist Buckmisinster Fuller contributed one of his geodesic domes in 1952, now loacted near the Bayer-Benedict Music Tent and Paepcke Memorial Building. Though the Institute’s original patron is long gone, art and design remain a focus. Environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s wall snakes outside and continues through the McNulty Ballroom. Two on-campus art galleries are filled with Bayer’s work, and most of the decorative photographs were taken by Ferenc Berko. “Aspen was in shambles,” Yllanes said. “Paepcke got this town restarted by bringing in all these thinkers and artists.” -Ana McKenzie
Heidi Zuckerman, Director of the Aspen Art Museum, knows to let artists move unhindered through the creative process. So after Shigeru Ban—winner of last year’s Pritzker—was asked to design the museum’s new home, her only request was that he allow enough neutral space for exhibits. She let him handle the rest. Framed by natural materials that offer spectacular views of the mountains, the building has quickly become a downtown icon. To learn more, Modern In Denver caught up with Zuckerman. Have a look through her eyes, as she describes for us what it’s like working in one of the most interesting buildings in Colorado.
Part of Shigeru Ban’s genius is he created this screen around the building that people have an immediate reaction to. They think it’s a grid—geometric—but once you’re inside, it becomes readily apparent that each aperture is different. The width and length of the prodema—the material the screen is made of—is so varied, and you also notice that it’s woven and has these undulations. Instead of blocking the view, which is what you might think from the outside, it actually frames the view.
I have a history of working with artists. A big part of that is listening to them and figuring out what’s most important. I asked Shigeru Ban early on, “What are the five most important features of the building? Identify what they are, and let’s set them aside; no one will ever talk you out of them.” They were the screen, the truss, the grand staircase, the elevator, and the walkable skylights. Then I said, “What I need in exchange is to be able to set the specifications for the galleries because that’s what I know about.”
I worked on this project from the very beginning, and to have achieved something like this is just so personally and professionally gratifying on a daily basis. I love bringing artists here and doing their exhibitions. I love having lunch upstairs with donors.
One of the things that defines me and a lot of people who live and work in Aspen is I prefer to be outside. Being in this building really feels like you’re able to achieve both. You’re protected from the elements and yet there are these broad expanses of glass that allow you to see exactly what’s happening outside.
People are so proud to work here. One of our guards had been working for TSA and felt like she had come to the end of learning. The opportunity to work in this building, meet Shigeru Ban, and educate our visitors about him and his architecture has given her a new lease on life.
In the summer of 2014, legendary Japanese architect Shigeru Ban unveiled a bold, four-level, 33,000-square-foot art museum—his first-ever in America. The structure boasts a Moving Room glass elevator, a three-level interior and exterior grand staircase, a roof-deck sculpture garden, and other breathtaking details befitting a $45 million project helmed by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect. But this masterpiece of modern design does not reside in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. It belongs instead to another trendsetting modernist hotspot: the secluded mountain town of Aspen, Colorado, population 6,658.
What Aspen lacks in size or profile it makes up in pedigree. While to some it registers as just another vacation playground for the rich and famous, the town’s ascension to the ranks of legitimate architectural breeding ground is hard-earned. All over town gems emerge—from the polycarbonate Theatre Aspen tent in Rio Grande Park to Christ Episcopal Church in the historic West End—with each giving a nod to the town’s Bauhaus-inspired DNA.
Founded on the strength of a short-lived 19th-century sliver boom, Aspen shifted quickly from a bustling mining outpost of 12,000 people to an anonymous, mostly-abandoned backwater. By the time Friedl Pfeifer and Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke came along to revive the place in 1945, there were only 600 residents scattered in and around the lone operational mine.
Pfeifer, a 10th Mountain Division veteran, and the Paepckes, Chicago-area investors, looked beyond the years of neglect. Where others saw only desolation, they saw potential. Though they shared grand visions and a unifying, altruistic core, Pfeifer and the Paepckes harbored fundamentally different visions for Aspen. Pfeifer imagined a major ski resort on par with his native Austria. The Paepckes, on the other hand, recognized an ideal setting for cultural, spiritual, and intellectual renewal. “We want writers and scientists and artists and businessmen,” said Walter Paepcke, “and we want them to be [permanent] citizens of Aspen, not seasonal visitors.”
Whatever differences they may have had, Pfeifer and the Paepckes agreed to partner in pursuit of one common goal: to breathe life into this little ghost town. Walter Paepcke moved quickly in pursuing his vision for a modernist architectural village, scooping up available properties and—in what proved to be a masterstroke—convincing Herbert Bayer, the famed Bauhaus renaissance man, to become the town’s lead architect, designer, and artist-in-residence. Coupled with other public initiatives including the creation of music festivals and ski races, Bayer’s presence helped Aspen advance swiftly and with keen purpose. “One thing that Walter Paepcke knew was that the town would never survive on only a winter economy and the perfect event came up—the Goethe Bicentennial—which spawned the Music Festival and Aspen Institute, among others,” said Anna Scott, Archivist at the Aspen Historical Society. “Also the forethought of people like Dick Durrance, who worked to bring the 1950 FIS World Championships here to Aspen, put our resort on the map of both the European market and of major ski resort destinations.” Adding Bayer to the mix also paved the way for Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to lend a hand with the 1945 town planning. Gropious’ guidance during one meeting would serve as Aspen’s architectural compass from that day forward. “Restore the best of the old,” he said. “But if you build, build modern.”
Ten years later, Aspen transformed. A 1955 Rocky Mountain News article stated that “even in competition with millionaire tycoons, best-selling novelists, and top-ranking musicians, Herbert Bayer is Aspen’s most famous resident.” But instead of returning to his native Austria, Bayer moved to Aspen full-time to implement Paepcke’s proposed artistic, cultural center—the equivalent of a European kulturstaat. His Bauhaus training, which centered on designing the total human environment, and which emphasized that art should be incorporated into all areas of life, spoke to Paepcke’s ideals. For nearly two decades, this cultural and architectural initiative kept Bayer busy. His rectilinear shapes, flat roofs, basic geometric shapes, cantilevered balconies, expansive use of glass, and use of industrial materials anchored Aspen’s architectural foundation, and still dot the landscape today.
A lesser-known hero of Aspen’s architectural dynasty is Frederic “Fritz” Benedict, a former apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. Benedict happened upon Aspen during a long drive from his home state of Wisconsin to Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. Known for fluidly and organically setting architecture into landscapes—characteristics of Wright’s profound influence—Benedict is responsible for, among others, Aspen’s Edmundson Waterfall House. Built directly into the side of a cliff next to a natural waterfall, the house features a low-pitched roof, deep overhangs and a horizontal emphasis. “Aspen was very fortunate 50 years ago to be wakened from her sleep by visionaries,” said Bob Maynard, former head of both the Aspen Ski Company and the Aspen Institute, in 1995. “The trio of Benedict, Bayer, and Paepcke combined dreams and hope and reality uniquely to restore a community ravaged by mining, trapped in poverty—yet willing to follow the dreamers.”
Bayer, Benedict, and the flocks of young architects who migrated toward the Aspen architecture scene began designing residential homes, ski industry structures, and, under the direction of benefactor Walter Paepcke, the early Aspen Institute buildings.
A contribution that would soon propel the Pitkin County slopes into ski town stardom was the original Sundeck warming hut, summiting Aspen Mountain. Completed in 1946, the octagonal restaurant was designed with an inverted roof slanting toward the center, causing the centrally located fireplace to melt snow and run off to tanks in the basement. It provided water (from the run-off), protection, and a stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding range. Residential renovations started in the Victorian West End, and new modernist homes quickly followed. With their flat roofs and white stucco walls, the Bauhaus- and Wright-inspired style brought the community a new light and an entirely new perspective. “It just kept growing from there,” said Scott.
Over the years, Aspen has continued to attract world-class architects for both its potential and its unrivaled mountain surroundings. Today’s modern firms have helped further develop Aspen’s commercial and public buildings within its vibrant community. “We are quite fortunate in Aspen, having very sophisticated and well-traveled clients who allow us to pursue our explorations and subscribe to a journey of discovery in our work and process,” said Scott Lindenau, FAIA, Design Principal at Studio B Architects. “The established lifestyle here embodies and embraces the arts, fitness, awareness, sustainability, and a greater perspective of the world in which we live. That idealistic philosophy attracts both wonderful clients and great design and architecture firms.”
Other notable firms, such as Charles Cunniffe Architects (Aspen Athletic Club, Aspen Block), David Johnston Architects (Spring Building, Kenichi), KA DesignWorks, Inc. (Hotel Durant), Poss Architecture and Planning (Hyatt Grand Aspen, Boogie’s Diner), Menendez Architects (Aspen Alps Condominiums), Rowland+Broughton (Crandall Building, Hotel Jerome, The Little Nell), and Studio B Architects (Aspen Middle School), have helped pave the way to Aspen’s current modernist community. Charles Cunniffe Architects, for example, worked with Theatre Aspen for over 10 years to redesign its tent in downtown Rio Grande Park. The award-winning structure was designed to include multi-wall polycarbonate panels that fade to clear, which minimizes glare and potential heat gain. Its upward pivoting doors manually lift and remain open with gas springs, opening the lobby to its surroundings.
Studio B Architects’ public work with Christ Episcopal Church in Aspen’s Historic West End used the existing structure’s modernist roots as design cues—and was perhaps one of the firm’s most gratifying community projects to date. “It transformed the primarily older congregation’s perspective on ‘modernism’ and has since experienced a doubling in the size of the congregation,” said Lindenau.
On the residential front, Aspen now sees more and more risk-taking design endeavors, inevitably stemming from the town’s popularity for second and third vacation homes.
And while modern residential architecture and ideas appear in other mountain communities, Aspen, due in part to its deep roots in design history, stands alone. “People want homes that are new and fresh, with clean lines and open floor plans,” said Bill Poss, Partner at Poss Architecture and Planning. “We also see that they are more in touch with design overall … because of social media and websites that promote modern looks and what’s happening now. They see what they like and they go for it.” Sarah Broughton of Rowland +Broughton Architecture and Urban Design experiences the same risk-taking results with her clients. “Aspenites tend to be progressive in regards to technology, luxury trends, and exotic adventures,” she said. “Their houses are no different. They are willing to try things to be on the forefront of technology and innovation.”
What was once a failed mining town has transformed—over the course of a few short decades—into a world leader in modern architectural design. What other mountain village can claim a Shigeru Ban-designed art museum? Or a town blueprint conceived by Bauhaus artists? Or such a wide-ranging collection of innovative homes, including several with a direct Frank Lloyd Wright lineage? In the tradition of the small handful of visionaries who first saw promise where others saw only ruin, Aspen has blossomed into a world-class destination for lovers and practitioners of modern architecture. It is immeasurably more than a ski resort, or even a celebrity playground. It might just be the grandest little mountain town in the world.