On Saturday, August 2, I had the opportunity to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony and member’s opening of the new Aspen Art Museum (AAM), designed by this year’s Pritzker Prize winner, Shigeru Ban. The event took place at the tail end of AAM’s annual ArtCrush festival, which gathers artists, art collectors, curators, gallery owners, celebrities, and philanthropists from around the world to celebrate contemporary art and raise money for the museum through an auction.
While the museum opening was well timed to take advantage of the glut of luminaries in town for ArtCrush, it did catch the building itself—Shigeru Ban’s first permanent museum project in the U.S.—at an awkward moment in terms of its construction. Workers were still finishing up the last details—including installing a piece by Jim Hodges called With Liberty and Justice For All (A Work In Progress) that will occupy the sidewalk—but it was intact enough to get a good impression of what visitors will experience when it opens to the general public on August 9.
To kick things off with a bang, AAM commissioned New York–based artist Cai Guo-Qiang to put together a day-time firework display known as Black Lighting, which was spectacular, though a little frightening in its resemblance to artillery fire.
While you can wait for my critique of the museum (coming soon) for a full run-down of the design, the basic concept was to integrate the building respectfully within the built fabric of Aspen while at the same time taking full advantage of the natural beauty of its Rocky Mountain setting and providing ideal spaces for displaying an ever changing array of art. AAM is not a collecting institution. Its director, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, is always on the search for the next upcoming artist, and thus the gallery spaces had to offer a lot of flexibility. Shigeru Ban stacked three floors of galleries against the party wall (one below grade, two above), wrapped them in circulation and offices (at the back), enclosed it all in a white metal and glass curtain wall, and then wrapped the street faces (it’s a corner lot) with a woven Prodeema screen whose wood veneer offers a warm, hand-crafted expression that cozies up to Aspen’s masonry and timber context. (Front Inc. provided facade consulting services. The architect of record is Cottle Carr Yaw of Basalt, Colorado.)
The screen is not uniform. Its apertures are larger toward the corner and top of the building, providing the best views there, while concealing the emergency stair and back of house spaces at the opposite ends. A glass elevator at the corner allows visitors to look out at the surroundings as they ascend or descend. A grand stair between the screen and glass curtain wall provides access directly to the top of the building, where there is a cafe and terrace/sculpture garden. (For the opening the terrace was occupied by another Cai Guo-Qiang installation called Moving Ghost Town, which involved a sort of barnyard pen where two African Sulcata tortoises with iPads mounted to their shells were free to wander, or hide their heads in the dirt, as one found it fit to do throughout the reception. The iPads played video that the tortoises had “filmed” while wandering through a nearby Colorado ghost town.) The rooftop/top floor spaces can be open to one another or closed off, depending on the weather, by way of a manually operated sliding glass wall. Another stair just inside the curtain wall, which mirrors the one outside, provides direct access to the gallery spaces. The idea behind this circulation scheme is that, like on Aspen’s ski slopes, visitors can climb to the top before “sliding” down through the exhibition spaces.
Structurally, the building is made up of a composite system that includes post-tensioned cast-in-pace concrete (which offered the most efficient floor-to-floor dimensions (about 16 feet), allowing the architects to provide 14-foot-high ceilings (to the bottom of the beam) in the gallery spaces while fitting the building within Aspen’s 47-foot height limit), exposed structural steel pipes, and an exposed timber space frame for the roof. The timber space frame is, in my mind, the highlight of the architecture. Fabricated by Spearhead Timberworks in British Columbia, it features three types of wood: spruce chords, birch web members, and Douglas fir end caps. The webs have curving profiles that create flat interfaces with the top and bottom chords of the truss. This allowed the connection between web and chord to be made with a single steel screw—as opposed to a gusset plate connection—driven in from above so that it is invisible from below, giving the impression that it is an all-wood structure. Ventilation ducts, sprinklers, and lighting integrate well within the space frame structure as well.
Four out of the six galleries feature some access to daylight, while two are completely artificially lit. (L’Observatoire International designed the lighting scheme.) This was one aspect where the collaboration between Shigeru Ban and Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson shows. Heidi originally wanted black box spaces where she could have total control over the lighting, in keeping with at least the past 50 years of curatorial thinking and gallery design in this country. Shigeru, however, convinced her (after a tour of naturally lit gallery spaces) that she could have the control she wanted while taking advantage of the dynamic qualities natural light. After all, art is created in natural light. Another place the collaboration shows is in the openness of the building (see the roof) and the variety of ways in which one can traverse it. Shigeru reportedly at first wanted a very controlled circulation sequence, providing one way to proceed through the museum, but Heidi put her foot down, explaining that in the U.S.A., especially in the West, people expect a little more freedom of movement.