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The Architecture of Sunlight

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Aspen’s new art museum is a tour de force that features dazzling natural light and sweeping views. Will Grant finds its bold design is winning fans, provoking locals and tempting a few climbers
Photography by Michael Moran
The design for the Aspen Art Museum opens the building to the outside so that visitors can appreciate the beauty of Aspen and its mountain slopes from the inside.
The design for the Aspen Art Museum opens the building to the outside so that visitors can appreciate the beauty of Aspen and its mountain slopes from the inside.

Looking south from the rooftop patio of the Aspen Art Museum, the steeps of Aspen Mountain rise from the valley floor. The patio is trim and modern, half-open to the crisp mountain air and views of the surrounding peaks. The other covered half of the patio houses a small cafe where a can of sparkling Pellegrino water will cost you five bucks. It’s a clean, beautifully lit space that begs a cup of coffee and time to appreciate the view.

The museum is laid out in such a way that the architect, Japanese-born Shigeru Ban, intended viewers to begin on the top floor (the third floor) and descend through the galleries, moving downward as a skier would a mountain. As a nod to Aspen’s downhill heritage, Ban wanted the museum experience to reflect a skier’s, and Gallery 1, the museum’s largest at 4,000 square feet, is on the second floor.

The museum’s woven façade of thin, rust-colored boards rises six stories.
The museum’s woven façade of thin, rust-colored boards rises six stories.

The most striking feature of the museum, present almost everywhere in the building, is the incorporation of natural light into its design. Gallery 1 has almost no exterior exposure walls — the museum is essentially a building set within a glass shell — but light still filters in through walkable skylights on the rooftop patio, through an anteroom with smoked windows, and through architectural features that cater to the mountain sun.

In fact, Ban tracked the sun’s trajectory over Aspen’s Roaring Fork Valley for a full year. “[Ban] really liked the mountain light, and he wanted a lot of it,” says Jeff Murcko, communications director of the museum. “He said, ‘I think you have to have a sense of natural light, and it can be done in a way that isn’t a problem.’ If you don’t do it right, you get a lot of solar gain, a lot of temperature increase, a lot of humidity. But we made it happen.”

Visitors begin on the top floor and descend through the galleries, a nod to Aspen’s neighboring ski slopes.
Visitors begin on the top floor and descend through the galleries, a nod to Aspen’s neighboring ski slopes.

Essentially, that meant an unconventional approach to exhibiting art because it would be getting large doses of sunlight. But like a lot of Ban’s other works, convention was not a priority. The priority was the natural character of the site.

In the sense that the installation reflects an appreciation for its location, the Aspen Art Museum is faithful to Ban’s style. He wanted the 30,000-square-foot museum to complement the natural features of the Roaring Fork valley.

“I always strive for a unified relationship between the structure and its surroundings,” Ban wrote about the museum, which opened last year. “I wanted to create
a site-specific sequence that
took into account the mountain views and the building’s purpose as an art museum, and to open the building to the outside so visitors could appreciate the beauty of Aspen from inside the building.”

Natural light and materials fill the building.
Natural light and materials fill the building.

The exterior of the Aspen Art Museum is a wicker-like shell of thin, rust-colored boards woven 47 feet high. The wood grid, backed by glass, encases the museum. At night, the building looks like an overturned basket with a light bulb glowing inside it. During the day, the massive exterior dwarfs the diminutive entrance. In fact, walking in the front doors feels less like entering a museum than it does like walking into the ski hill gondola, which was part of Ban’s mimicry of the skiing experience.

The art museum, partly because of its massive, bold exterior, has also been the source of controversy in town. It’s bigger than the other buildings around it, and it’s a significant variation from the Victorian architecture that dominates the area. Additionally, the building was fast-tracked through the city approval process, and many felt officials failed to adequately involve the people of Aspen in the decision. The museum complied with building codes at the time, though they have since been changed to restrict future buildings of the same size.

One group, however small, does appreciate the museum’s size and architecture: rogue climbers. They see the woven exterior as one handhold after another, well lit at night and loosely patrolled by 24-hour security. The museum has been climbed dozens of times, and the penalty for trespassing amounts to a citation. But the expression of poaching the museum is a fitting representation of how some locals feel about it: The museum doesn’t speak of Aspen.

Exhibits change every couple of months.
Exhibits change every couple of months.

To that, CEO and Director Heidi Zuckerman, throughout her fundraising and establishment of the museum, thought equally about what the museum could do for Aspen and what Aspen could for the museum. She felt that a Ban-designed building that featured a world-class cadre of contemporary artists would land the mountain town on the global art map. Along with some of the best mountain recreation and shopping in the Rocky Mountains, Aspen now had a cultural institution on the same level.

“Aspen is a unique community with a history of devotion to culture in equal measure to its reputation as a ski or resort destination,” Zuckerman says. “The Aspen Art Museum was founded 36 years ago as a noncollecting institution for the presentation of internationally important art and a vision of broadening the artistic dialogue in Aspen.”

At night, the building resembles a wooden basket with a light bulb glowing inside.
At night, the building resembles a wooden basket with a light bulb glowing inside.

As a noncollecting institution, the museum rotates its exhibits every two months or so. From a practical standpoint, that frees the museum from the costs of continually buying art and the need for storage space of collected art. From a visitor’s standpoint, the installations remain relevant and contemporary.

“Since we don’t have a permanent collection it allows us to keep things fresh, and it allows us to engage with the rest of the art world,” Murcko says. “We can bring critically acclaimed art to Aspen that you would only be able to see somewhere else.”

An example of such an installation was that of New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. His rooftop installation, called Moving Ghost Town, featured three live African tortoises with iPads mounted on their backs, roaming a small enclosure. The iPads showed images of local ghost towns. The exhibit drew criticism, mostly because people felt the tortoises shouldn’t be burdened with 2 pounds of electronics, but it was the kind of evocative art the museum brings to discussion.

Architectural features highlight Aspen’s mountain sunlight.
Architectural features highlight Aspen’s mountain sunlight.

With an ever-changing lineup of artists and without an entry fee to see the art, the museum, though hardly an organic expression of the town, contributes to the cultural depth of Aspen. It offers an attraction unrelated to season or snow depth, and it serves a community role that’s on par with the city’s high-end retailers and the mountains’ epic terrain. It also provides a communal space for locals and tourists alike to see what the rest of the art world is talking about.

“One of our primary programmatic endeavors as a museum is to connect people with art in unexpected places,” Zuckerman says, “and our environment here in Aspen allows us to do just that.”

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