What seems like an enviable Bilbao-like asset has split the community of this affluent ski-resort town
The opening of Shigeru Ban’s woven-timber Aspen Art Museum drew the eyes of the world’s media, eager to review the Pritzker Prize winner’s first permanent museum in the United States. Regional city – check; star architect – check; cultural building – check. This had all the hallmarks of a community looking to realise its own Bilbao effect.
But while for the past 20 years other cities have been clamouring to create museums and galleries in an effort to attract visitors, Aspen is already firmly ‘on the map’ as the world’s most exclusive ski resort city. It is Aspen’s celebrated, and increasingly elitist, status on the global stage that the six-and-a-half thousand residents are wary of.
‘There was fierce resistance to the building. It split the community,’ explains Aspen’s mayor Steve Skadron, the only member of the city council to vote against Ban’s proposal. Skadron was subsequently elected on an anti-development ticket. For the past eight years, Ban’s museum has been the focus of tension in Aspen.
Why has this art museum, which on the surface seems like an enviable asset to any city – a $45 million museum entirely funded by private donations, free to enter and built by one of the world’s most respected architects – proved so divisive?
An internationally renowned getaway, Aspen became a favourite retreat for the Hollywood jet set in the 1980s and ’90s. High-power corporate executives followed and now with a reported 50 billionaires owning homes in Aspen, you would be hard pressed to find a greater concentration of wealth in the US. ‘The billionaires are driving out the millionaires,’ jokes my driver from the airport. His joviality betrays a serious issue threatening Aspen’s future sustainability; the huge influx of wealth is driving the middle class out of town.
Despite its glitzy reputation and obvious wealth – I spotted Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton boutiques clustered in the city centre – Aspen has maintained the feel of a small, relaxed mountain town. Much of its urban fabric is historic, dating from the mining heyday of the 1890s. The low-slung red brick downtown is only occasionally punctuated by larger civic structures or modern infills. Ban’s contemporary museum occupies a plot in the midst of the historic core. How it came to inhabit this site remains a highly contentious issue for city residents.
Following the arrival of ambitious museum director Heidi Zuckerman in 2005, plans were set in motion to relocate the Aspen Art Museum from its original home in a former hydroelectric plant to higher-profile premises. Capitalising on the city’s wealthy inhabitants, fundraising began. A plot of city-owned land occupied by a former youth centre was identified and, following a worldwide tour to investigate the work of six shortlisted architects, Shigeru Ban was appointed to design the building. The initial scheme had to be abandoned after a public vote rejected the sale of the land to the museum, leaving Zuckerman to hunt for other viable sites.
At the time, Aspen was locked in a legal battle with a developer for blocking plans to build a mixed-use scheme on another downtown site. With Aspen facing the possibility of being sued, an agreement was reached between the city, the developer and Zuckerman for Aspen Art Museum to be built there.
Local political activist Elizabeth Milias sums up the resolution, ‘The ardent anti-development zealots on council at the time thought they could bully a developer out of its plans by claiming legal standing of the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP). It later became clear through multiple lawsuits that the AACP is merely an advisory document, so the city settled, and in so doing, capitulated on a whole host of land-use concessions. The end result for the city is that we got the current museum, a far bigger structure than that which was originally planned for the site.’
Although only 14m (47ft) tall, many of Aspen’s residents regard the museum as a behemoth. Steve Goldenberg, a retired partner at Goldman Sachs, contests that the building’s scale is wholly inappropriate for Aspen: ‘In winter it blocks the sun across the entire street and it blocks the view of Aspen Mountain.’
In contrast, I found Ban’s museum an extremely likeable building. The scale is wholly appropriate. With a footprint that occupies the entire site, the cuboid structure is clad on its principal street facades with a basket-like lattice of Prodema, wood and paper pulp encased in a wooden veneer. This unifies the facades, and in combination with the building’s mass (admittedly large by local standards) asserts the museum in the city, reinforcing the civic and public nature of the building.
Internally, the museum is immaculate yet conventional, punctuated occasionally with a Ban cardboard or bamboo signature flourish. The 17,500 sq ft of white box exhibition space is divided into six galleries; these are surrounded by spaces with a higher tolerance for climate variation – namely the offices, shop and circulation.
‘Contrived as it sounds, the circulation strategy is supremely successful, and (perhaps unknowingly) anticipates the residents’ disdain for the art.’
Due to a lack of mountain views from the site, Ban inverted the museum, placing the ‘foyer’ space, complete with café, on the roof. His intention was to encourage visitors to ascend to the top of the building, either via the ‘grand staircase’ or ‘moving room’ (glass lift), before ‘skiing’ down through the building’s galleries.
Contrived as it sounds, the circulation strategy is supremely successful, and (perhaps unknowingly) anticipates the residents’ disdain for the art. The stair allows direct access to the roof terrace without ever having to set foot in the galleries proper. It draws the passers-by up to the roof terrace, where even the most ardent objector is impressed by the spectacular view of Aspen Mountain. Half covered by a playful triangular timber-truss roof, Aspen’s only publicly accessible roof terrace places the building firmly within its mountain setting. It is this asset for the city that has been key to changing residents’ opinions of the building.
As an attraction, the museum is clearly a success. Director Zuckerman is thrilled with Ban’s work, and even more so with the fact that the facility is being so well used: ‘To date we have tripled our attendance,’ she says, ‘we anticipate nearing 100,000 visitors in the first year in this location.’
How many of that number are Aspen residents is unknown, but convincing locals of the value of this new museum is a task that Zuckerman is resolved to complete: ‘Was I surprised by a segment of the local population that was not supportive of a new, privately funded museum in our community? Yes. But this also affords us opportunities to do better; to reach more people, and to share what we know is a real asset for Aspen,’ she says.
Others, including Mayor Skadron, maintain that the museum is wrong for Aspen. Ban’s museum is for many the physical embodiment of the super rich taking ownership of downtown Aspen. If the built environment defines the city, the residents have become fiercely protective of its current iteration. ‘I appreciate Shigeru Ban’s work,’ Skadron says, ‘but I believe this building is better suited for an urban setting.’
Ban’s building is already being used as a weapon by residents in their battle against development: ‘In Aspen, looking at the too tall, too wide Aspen Art Museum every day we will price the pay to prevent other inappropriate, too tall, too wide buildings from being approved and built,’ says Goldenberg.
Building for Aspen’s super-rich is the antithesis of Shigeru Ban’s reputation as ‘humanitarian architect’ and the projects that made him famous. It is hard to imagine a better choice of starchitect to create a contemporary building that might eventually (if begrudgingly) gain acceptance from Aspen’s residents. If Ban’s serene woven art museum has divided the city, a glinting Gehry would have torn it apart.
Aspen Art Museum
Architect: Shigeru Ban Architects
Executive architect: Cottle Carr Yaw Architects
Structural engineer: KL&A with Hermann Blumer (Création Holz)
Photographs: Michael Moran