When Shigeru Ban first saw the site of the art museum he would design for the city Aspen, he was less than awed. “Actually, I was quite disappointed,” he recalls. “It didn’t have any views.” But a trip to the building next door convinced him that maybe the plot at the corner of Hyman Avenue and Spring Street in downtown Aspen wasn’t such a bad spot after all. “I went and stood on the roof and that’s when I saw the views.” These consisted of a wall of pine-covered Rocky Mountain peaks streaked by a web of ski runs.
The whole experience led Ban to rethink the traditional progression of the museum. Instead of entering the building in a great hall at street level, then moving up into the galleries on the floors above, visitors to the Aspen Art Museum will do the opposite. They will take an external staircase or a glass elevator to the rooftop garden on the third level, where the surrounding slopes will serve as a great hall of a higher order. From there, they will descend into the galleries, exiting at street level. This progression, Ban says, perfectly mimics the act of skiing, for which Aspen is well known: “You rise up, get the views, then descend.”
The structure represents the first permanent museum for Shigeru Ban Architects in the United States. In 2005, he created a temporary exhibition hall out of shipping containers in New York and Los Angeles: the so-called Nomadic Museum. And he’s built permanent museums abroad—most famously, the Centre-Pompidou-Metz, in France, whose undulating roof line was inspired by a Chinese peasant’s hat. But a permanent arts institution had thus far eluded him in this country. An expansion he designed for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in 2005 was put on hold due to the university’s financial troubles. And a proposal for a new building for the Orange County Museum of Art in Southern California remains just that: a proposal. That will all change, however, when the new Aspen Art Museum opens its doors to the public early in August.
Ban’s architecture might seem unlikely in this glitzy ski town, one whose social scene has inspired its own VH1 reality show. The architect is decidedly low-key, best known for his attention to the environment and humanitarian causes, designing emergency shelters that have been employed after natural disasters in Kobe and Sri Lanka, among other places. Last year, he designed a temporary cathedral, made of cardboard tubes, for the city of Christchurch, in New Zealand, after the city’s iconic worship space was destroyed in a 6.3 magnitude quake.
Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the director of the Aspen Art Museum, says that when Ban presented his ideas to the museum’s honchos in the summer of 2007, it was the social concerns that cropped up immediately. “He spent the first 45 minutes of his presentation talking about humanitarian architecture,” Zuckerman Jacobson recalls. “And I wondered, how is this going to go over? But the architect selection committee loved it.”
In the fall of that year, Ban was unanimously chosen to design new digs for the three-decade-old museum, a non-collecting, contemporary-art institution that has outgrown its space in an old 19th century power plant on the Roaring Fork River. (Cottle Carr Yaw Architects, of Basalt, Colo., will serve as the architect of record.)
The $45 million structure, currently under construction in downtown Aspen, is emblematic of post-recession restraint. “Museums have to be very practical,” Ban says. “They can’t just be sculpture.” And in keeping with that ethos, the architect has delivered a simple three-story structure free of tight angles, ovoid shapes, or curving walls. This includes half a dozen galleries, an artist residency area, education spaces, and conservation studios, all told occupying a total 33,000 square feet. The galleries are large and column-free, with flexible partition walls capable of accommodating large-scale sculpture and installation. The rooftop garden functions as entrance hall, public gathering area, and outdoor projection space. “The program was so precise,” Ban says. “There was no space to waste.”
But simplicity doesn’t mean that he has sacrificed design. “You can still have architecture in a museum,” he explains. The Aspen Art Museum reflects some of Ban’s long-running motifs. For one, there is the presence of paper, a material that the architect has long been obsessed with. The building’s exterior will be covered by a geometric screen that is being manufactured using Prodema, a paper material impregnated with resin that resembles a wood veneer. Behind the screen sits a wall of glass, allowing daylight to pour into the museum. Unlike a solid wall, the paper cage "provides opportunities for glimpses of downtown and the mountains,” Ban says. In the evening, when the building is illuminated from within, it will allow the structure to emit a soft glow.
It’s in the roof trusses, however, where Ban has gotten most artful. He has designed these as undulating waves of wood held together by screws, thereby eliminating the need for metal joints in the ceiling. When visitors ascend to the roof garden, they will catch a glimpse of these rolling wood waves, a sly way of inserting a decorative structural element into the building—one that doesn’t alter or inhibit the shape or feel of the galleries. “I wanted to make the galleries very practical,” he says. “But I wanted to have a sense of craftsmanship paired with the whitebox.”
And of course, there is environmental factor. Museums are notorious energy-guzzlers, with their stringent lighting and climate-control needs. Architect Zachary Moreland, AIA, is serving as the senior project architect on the building for Shigeru Ban Architects America. He says the design attempts to mitigate some of the energy consumption. “It’s an idea we call ‘the thermos,’” he says. “The concept is to put the most demanding spaces at the center of the building and surround them with circulation space. This created a double layer—a wrapper or envelope—around the galleries that helps maintain climate conditions in that space.” Solar panels and strategically placed skylights also help minimize the use of electricity.
For Ban, the structure represents an important accomplishment in an already notable career. “I am thrilled to finally do a museum in the U.S.,” he says. “I think this will be a step forward for me as an architect.”
This post has been updated.