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Aspen Art Museum and Shigeru Ban’s Architectural Genius
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Aspen Art Museum and Shigeru Ban’s Architectural Genius

Picture of Kirsten Nicholas
Updated: 11 December 2015
Aspen Art Museum’s much anticipated new building, designed by architect Shigeru Ban, is set to open August 2014. Nestled among the Rocky Mountains in the tiny town of Aspen, Colorado, this contemporary art institution functions as a kunsthalle that will solidify Aspen as a cultural destination in addition to a nature lover’s paradise.
Image Courtesy of  the main entrance Hyman
Image Courtesy of the main entrance Hyman

In a region where the great outdoors reigns supreme, harmoniously combining exterior environment with interior culture was a primary concern for the Aspen Art Museum’s new building. Prominent architect Shigeru Ban possesses an interesting history working for humanitarian efforts building shelters in disaster stricken countries from accessible recycled paper materials. This unique collaboration with the land demonstrates his ability to understand a site’s surroundings, earning him the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize.

AAM CEO and Director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson states, ‘Ban’s commitments to both the environment and humanitarian efforts made him a unanimous choice. His selection assured an architecturally appropriate, environmentally sound, and culturally significant venue for contemporary art in the core of Aspen.’ While Ban has executed acclaimed, international institutions, such as the Centre Pompidou-Metz in Lorraine, France, the AAM is his eagerly anticipated first U.S. museum commission.

Latticed timber, a signifier of Ban architecture, shades two sides of the four-storey building, transporting visitors into a 33,000 square foot cultural tree house. This woven, wooden screen is a natural extension of the mountainous region giving pedestrians a glimpse into the galleries while casting intricate shadow patterns on the main entrance. This interplay of light and shadow illustrates Ban’s desire to blend interior spaces with exterior vistas while enhancing natural light.

In order to achieve this effect, Ban relies heavily on glass curtains, skylights, and an open floor plan. These attributes allow light to penetrate the museum from three angles (two facades and the roof) easily illuminating the interior. Additionally, this use of transparency augments interior views of the landscape creating a uniquely Aspen experience. Upon entering the lattice, visitors encounter an indoor/outdoor staircase. This grand stairway exemplifies Ban’s holistic design initiative by existing simultaneously inside and outside with a glass partition dividing the sections.

The Grand Staircase | Image Courtesy Aspen Art Museum and Shigeru Ban Architects and Shimahara Illustration.
The Grand Staircase | Image Courtesy Aspen Art Museum and Shigeru Ban Architects and Shimahara Illustration.

The outer stairs lead directly to the garden sculpture deck while the inner portion traverses three levels of exhibition space. The grand staircase is equipped with mobile pedestals to facilitate the display of art both inside and outside for a dynamic viewing experience. A glass elevator, or mobile room, animates the northeast corner of the building, which endows visitors with an alternate interior/exterior viewpoint.

As the only public rooftop view of Aspen Mountain, the outside sculpture deck offers both shaded and full sun viewing areas while being easily accessible to pedestrians with Ban’s staircase. Walkable skylights allow light to penetrate deep into the galleries and half of the roof is covered with a triangular wooden structure to help with environmental efficiencies. The interior meets the exterior with another row of glass curtains in order to provide unobstructed enjoyment of the mountain vista.

Functioning as a stand-alone pièce de résistance, Ban’s flawless design embraces the Aspen landscape highlighting his harmonious ability to construct a contemporary institution that can coexist with beautiful surroundings. His seamless interplay of indoor and outdoor will be further celebrated through AAM’s inaugural fall exhibitions.

A glass elevator is available for navigating the building and offers views of aspen as well as the building’s interior | Image Courtesy Aspen Art Museum and Shigeru Ban Architects.
A glass elevator is available for navigating the building and offers views of aspen as well as the building’s interior | Image Courtesy Aspen Art Museum and Shigeru Ban Architects.

Christening the building with a bang, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang will conduct an outdoor performance entitled Black Lighting, which will bevisible from the Roof Sculpture Deckon 2 August. Known for his use of gunpowder this daytime firework performance will create a single strike of black lighting coupled with a roaring boom that will momentarily connect the museum with the landscape. This interplay of contemporary art and natural environment continues with Guo-Qiang’s roof installation Moving Ghost Town.

Opening to the public on 9 August, this installation transforms the sculpture deck into native grassland for three African Sulcata tortoises. They will roam freely with Ipads on their backs that show footage, filmed by the creatures, from three local ghost towns. This animated sculptural installation combines past and present while connecting with local history in order to illustrate the universality of passing time.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Moving Ghost Town, 2014, Digital Rendering | Image Commissioned by the Aspen Art Museum.
Cai Guo-Qiang, Moving Ghost Town, 2014, Digital Rendering | Image Commissioned by the Aspen Art Museum.

Further grounding this institution in place, the AAM will also display 86 local minerals from Aspen and the state of Colorado. The Colorado Mineralogy exhibit illuminates the town’s mining history while serving as a metaphor for their contemporary cultural mining. This exhibit visually defines the AAM as an institution concerned with local community by celebrating the geological diversity of this region.

Illustrating their civic-minded nature and welcoming community, Shigeru Ban: Humanitarian Architecture will display true to size replicas of Ban’s groundbreaking designs for refugee shelters. His inclusion in their opening season celebrates his architectural versatility and altruistic nature while claiming him as a part of the AAM community.

The AAM complements their historic approach by organizing cutting-edge contemporary exhibitions. The drawing retrospective of German artist Tomma Abts will exhibit works from 1996 to the present including drawings created specifically for this exhibit. Her intricate abstract compositions play with viewer perception by existing between artistic intuition and human rationale.

Provocative artist Rosemarie Trockel, known for her diversified oeuvre and poignant sculptural compositions, will be featured in a solo exhibit that examines her engagement with ceramics. Dealing with issues of feminism, craft, and the natural world, this exhibit will feature past works as well as new pieces in order to highlight her groundbreaking manipulation and contemporary use of such a historically weighted medium.

 Jim Hodges, With Liberty and Justice for All, 2014. Digital Rendering | Image Courtesy the artist and the Aspen Art Museum.
Jim Hodges, With Liberty and Justice for All, 2014. Digital Rendering | Image Courtesy the artist and the Aspen Art Museum.

Imbuing history into the present, installation artist Jim Hodges will adorn the façade of Ban’s building with the phrase With Liberty and Just For All. Wrapping around the wooden screen, this phrase confronts pedestrians asking them to contemplate the philosophical, social, and political issues of our time. These weighted words illustrate the poignant power in simplicity and show AAM’s commitment to make art more accessible and visible to their community.

A dynamic two-person show, Yves Klein/David Hammons, aims to illustrate the artistry in the everyday. These significant artists both use humble materials, like Kool-Aid and fire, to create poignant contemplations. Their work exists between performance and public intervention in order to demonstrate the transformative quality of everyday materials. By highlighting artists who find aesthetic harmony in their surroundings the AAM further forges connections with their broad audience.

This ambitious inaugural program highlights the AAM as a cultural destination and hub for creativity. Ban’s beautifully designed building coupled with free admission, performance space, and year round educational workshops make the AAM one of the most anticipated openings of the year.


The Aspen Art Museum opens to the public on 9 August and is located at the corner of Hyman Avenue and Spring Street in the town of Aspen, Colorado. Detailed updates are posted weekly on their website as well as time lapse videos.


By Kirsten Nicholas