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
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Two sides of the concrete-and-steel building are enclosed by glass walls set behind a wicker-inspired screen of durable Prodema (resin and paper pulp covered by wooden veneer). | Photos by Michael Moran

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.

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The 33,000-square-foot, box-like building, partially concealed behind a rust-colored brise soleil, sits at the intersection of South Spring Street and East Hyman Avenue. Inside are six sizeable gallery spaces with pristine white walls, 14-foot-high ceilings and polished concrete floors. A non-collecting kunsthalle, the museum hosts ever-changing exhibitions of contemporary art.

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.

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An innovative triangular wooden roof structure adds a dramatic element to the top floor—with its enormous sliding glass walls that open to create an indoor-outdoor event space. The remainder of the roof is an open terrace with views of Ajax, Red Mountain and Independence Pass.

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.

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The 10-foot-wide grand staircase is tucked between the exterior screen and the interior glass curtain wall. The stair provides access to all levels of gallery space.

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.

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Sunlight streaming through the woven latticework casts beautiful, diffused shadows on the museum’s entry. Stairs lead to the roof where architect Shigeru Ban wants visitors to begin their museum experience. For those who cannot comfortably navigate the stairs, there’s a glass elevator.

“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.

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Light glinting through the museum’s glass walls creates a lantern-like glow at night.

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

Categories: High-Country Communities