This Aspen Museum is a Mountain Marvel
Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban's first American museum—cool glass, warmed by wood—is in downtown Aspen
The new generation of museums—the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Guggenheim in Bilbao, even going back to Frank Lloyd Wright’s now-iconic Guggenheim in New York—has been applauded by architecture critics but often draws mixed reviews from locals. Too big. Too wide. Too tall. A titanium train wreck. Not in keeping with surrounding buildings. The Aspen Art Museum was no exception.
Designed (in 2014) by Tokyo-based, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban (Shigeru Ban Architects), the environmentally sustainable, 33,000-square-foot Aspen Art Museum is an architecturally significant building that is, itself, a strong work of art.
Recently, Ban was selected as one of the ambassadors for the European Union’s New European Bauhaus, a round table of “distinguished thinkers and practitioners” tasked with kickstarting a new generation of beautiful, sustainable and inclusive places.
In an era when other museums were choosing “star-chitects” like Renzo Piano, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, the Aspen Art Museum (then helmed by Heidi Zuckerman) and the Architect Selection Committee made a surprising choice—the relatively unknown Shigeru Ban. Ban was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2014 but mainly for his ongoing, innovative humanitarian work—quickly and efficiently building shelters for disaster victims. The Aspen Art Museum is Ban’s first permanent museum in the United States.
The museum, a graceful, wood lattice-wrapped building, takes its cue from the elegant and durable Japanese tsuzura baskets—traditionally made in the Edo period (1603-1868) to store and protect heirloom kimonos and other precious objects. The lattice work (over a mainly glass shell) allows the play of light and shadow across the interior spaces—smoothly integrating architecture, art and nature.
In Ban’s vision, the museum’s visitors would be encouraged to ascend to the top level via the grand staircase or an impressive glass elevator, which he calls the Moving Room. Either ascent offers tantalizing glimpses of the art in the spacious interior galleries. On the roof-deck sculpture garden and in SO Café, visitors can grab a locally roasted coffee or well-priced lunch while enjoying spectacular views of Aspen Mountain and all the way to Independence Pass.
“It is like the experience of skiing,” Ban says in his design statement. “You go up to the top of a mountain, enjoy the view and then slide down.” Starting at the top floor of the museum may seem counterintuitive, but if you consider how many people take the gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain to ski down or hike down, it begins to make sense.
The Aspen Art Museum is a non-collecting museum—a kunsthalle—with rotating exhibitions changing every few months. Recently shown were Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room, the always-challenging work of Chris Ofili and Walter Price’s small, dreamlike landscapes. Art is always subjective, and ultra-contemporary art is especially so.
You’ll either like what you see or you won’t. In either case, the museum offers an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone, chat with knowledgeable docents in each of the galleries and gain a world perspective different from yours—all inside an architecturally adventurous building.
If you go:
The Aspen Art Museum is currently open with reduced visitor capacity. To make reservations for timed entry, visit aspenartmuseum.org.