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For Aspen Museum, Shigeru Ban Takes His Cue from the Snowy Slopes

November 28, 2011

Shigeru Ban talks to Architectural Record about his design for the new 30,000-square-foot building in central Colorado.

By David Hill

Aspen Art Museum
Image courtesy Aspen Art Museum

Shigeru Ban is designing a new art museum for Aspen, Colorado. slide show

 

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At nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, Aspen, Colorado, is known for its mountain splendor. The ski slopes of Ajax Mountain rise from the heart of the resort town’s central business district, with its high-end shops and restaurants. It’s fitting, then, that Japanese architect Shigeru Ban brings up skiing when describing his design for the Aspen Art Museum, scheduled to be completed in 2013.

“I want the experience of visiting the museum to be like the experience of skiing,” he says. “You take a lift and you go to the top of the mountain, and first you enjoy the view, and then you come down the slopes. I want visitors to the museum to take the elevator or the stairs to the roof, enjoy the view and the sculpture garden, and then come down to the galleries. Of course, they’re free to do what they want, but that’s my desire.”

Ban’s three-story, 30,000-square-foot structure will have six galleries, a café, a bookstore, a rooftop deck and sculpture garden, offices, workshop and storage space, and an apartment for visiting artists. Museum officials broke ground on the project in August. Construction of the $30 million building is scheduled to begin next spring.

For more than 30 years, the Aspen Art Museum has occupied a historic former hydroelectric power plant near the banks of the Roaring Fork River. It’s slightly off the beaten track, even by Colorado ski town standards. If downtown Aspen is Manhattan, says director and chief curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the art museum is across the river in Brooklyn. “And people don’t walk to Brooklyn,” she says.

Since she took the museum’s helm in 2005, Jacobson has led efforts to move to a larger building closer to Aspen’s central business district. In 2008, the non-collecting museum announced the selection of Ban—from an initial pool of 36 firms—to design a new museum. When completed, walking to the museum’s new location won’t be a problem. “It’s a block and a half from the main ski gondola,” Jacobson says.

Born in Tokyo in 1957, Ban studied architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and later under the legendary John Hejduk at Cooper Union’s School of Architecture. His museums include the Centre Pompidou-Metz, the Paper Art Museum, and the traveling Nomadic Museum. The Aspen Art Museum is Ban’s first permanent U.S. museum project. It will be four times the size of the current building.

The most striking architectural feature is a screen—constructed of paper but resembling wood—that covers exterior glass walls on the building’s two street-facing sides. On one side, between the screen and the glass curtain wall, is a 10-foot wide grand staircase that leads directly to the rooftop deck. “You can put your hand through the screen as you walk up the stairs,” Jacobson says. The staircase extends another six feet on the inside of the building. The combination of the screen and the glass curtain walls will allow indirect natural light to illuminate the galleries.

Ban says the challenge for any architect in designing an art museum is to come up with a scheme that is both practical for curators and artists and also offers “a special architectural experience” for visitors. “It’s a pity to go too far in either direction,” he says. “I think my design for the Centre Pompidou-Metz achieves the right balance, and I hope my design for the Aspen Art Museum will do the same.”

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