The story of how the Bauhaus came to Aspen, Colo., begins in the winter of 1939. The pipes had frozen at Elizabeth Paepcke’s vacation ranch house south of Denver, and so Pussy, as Elizabeth was nicknamed, and her houseguests traveled by train to Aspen, a Victorian-era mining town, for a weekend of skiing. “The town, home for some 800 people, seemed virtually abandoned,” James Sloan Allen writes in The Romance of Commerce and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1983). “All around stood the dark, snow-laden forms of buildings and houses long vacant.” The group checked into the ramshackle Hotel Jerome, where room and board cost $3 per person. But Pussy saw great potential in the fading town. As she reported back to her husband, the Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke: “You simply must see it. It’s the most beautifully untouched place in the world.”
When Walter finally made the trip in 1945, he clearly agreed, because he began buying up properties for back taxes, including a number of Victorian houses like Pioneer Park, a two-story manse that would become the Paepckes’ home in Aspen. He even invited his friend Walter Gropius, the legendary founder of the Bauhaus, to visit and design a master plan to guide Aspen’s restoration and growth. Gropius declined, although he famously offered this advice at a town meeting: “Restore the best of the old, but if you build, build modern.”
Which is what the Paepckes did. Instead of Gropius, they lured another Bauhaus alumnus to Aspen, an Austrian-born artist and designer named Herbert Bayer, and together they transformed the town into a thriving cultural hub and ski destination, a kind of American Salzburg. The Paepckes had the vision and the means. Bayer, known for his groundbreaking work in graphic design, had the artistic talent to market and promote Aspen with eye-catching posters and advertisements. Not to mention buildings: working mainly with the Frank Lloyd Wright–trained architect Fritz Benedict, Bayer designed several of the town’s pre-eminent landmarks, including the 40-acre campus of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, which today hosts, among other events, the annual Aspen Ideas Festival. Gwen Chanzit, a curator and author of From Bauhaus to Aspen (Johnson Books, 2005), says that designing the campus—which comprises the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Meadows Resort, the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the Aspen Center for Physics—was a kind of “Bauhaus dream” for Bayer. “Here,” she writes, “Bayer’s architecture, sculpture, murals, and earthworks all merge into a cohesive whole.”
By 1955, Bayer had become Aspen’s “most famous resident,” despite stiff competition from the town’s “millionaire tycoons, best-selling novelists, and top-ranking musicians,” at least according to the Rocky Mountain News. Almost as quickly, Bayer was forgotten. Not long ago, even at the Aspen Institute, where his influence is most obvious, it wasn’t easy to learn more than a few sketchy details about him.
The Paepckes describe their vision for Aspen
Today, with its posh boutiques and lavish vacation homes, Aspen hardly seems like a proving ground for the modernist tenet “form follows function.” (“More like ‘form follows finance,’ ” as a friend recently quipped.) But Aspen is finally making amends for the oversight. In this, the 100th anniversary year of the founding of the Bauhaus, which opened on April 1, 1919, in Weimar, Germany, Aspen is sponsoring a “Bauhaus 100” program to celebrate Bayer’s considerable influence. Events include panel discussions, lectures, art exhibitions, and walking tours. (There’s even a Bauhaus Ball, and Plato’s Restaurant at Aspen Meadows is selling a multicolored Herbert Bayer cake.) Aspen may now be a billionaire’s paradise, but if you look closely, you can still tease out Bayer’s legacy here.
Bayer Meets Paepcke
Born in Haag, Austria, in 1900, Bayer was just 21 when he enrolled as a student at the Bauhaus, conceived by Gropius as a kind of artistic utopia combining crafts and fine arts. (“Let us then create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist!” Gropius wrote in his founding manifesto.) Four years later, Bayer was appointed director of the printing and advertising workshop at the school’s new home in Dessau, where he created his all-lowercase Universal typeface, which was famously adopted as the school’s official typographical identity. In 1928, Bayer moved to Berlin, where he worked as a commercial artist, graphic designer, painter, and photographer.
The rise of the Nazi regime led to the shuttering of the Bauhaus in 1933, and many of the school’s most famous alumni—Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer—immigrated to America, Bayer included. He moved to New York in 1938, after Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, asked him to design an exhibition (and accompanying catalog) about the Bauhaus. Bayer designed several other exhibitions for MoMA, which is how he met Walter Paepcke, who was the president of the Container Corporation of America (CCA), a corrugated-box manufacturer. The Paepckes ran with an intellectual and artistic set that included the University of Chicago philosopher Mortimer Adler, as well as the transplanted Bauhauslers Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy. In 1945, at the urging of Gropius, Paepcke asked Bayer to design an exhibition called “Modern Art in Advertising” at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The following year, not long after his initial visit to the town, Paepcke persuaded Bayer to move to Aspen to work as a design consultant, offering him $6,000 a year in consulting fees from CCA and $2,500 from Paepcke’s newly formed real estate firm, the Aspen Co. Along with several partners, Paepcke also started the Aspen Skiing Co., but he was determined to make the town more than just a ski destination. “The phase of Aspen development that interests me most,” he told the publisher James Laughlin in 1946, is “the cultural, educational, and architectural.”
Bayer’s interests were even more wide-ranging. He had no formal training in architecture and didn’t get a license until 1960. Steeped as he was in the Bauhaus ethos of “total design,” he had no interest in separating disciplines: painting, graphics, sculpture, photography, architecture—for an artist like Bayer, there was no particular hierarchy. “Bayer practiced Bauhaus directives more consistently than any other of his Bauhaus colleagues,” Chanzit writes in From Bauhaus to Aspen. “He never limited himself in media, preferring to work across traditional lines to infuse modern life with integrated systems of design at every level.”
Aspen proved fertile ground for Bayer. Soon after arriving with his second wife, Joella, he got to work, starting with the restoration of the Jerome, which Paepcke had leased. Bayer updated the hotel’s mechanical systems and painted the building’s red-brick exterior white with blue “eyebrows” over the windows. Locals weren’t amused, but Paepcke and Bayer were just getting started. They offered residents free paint to spruce up their own deteriorating Victorian properties, but only in two colors: a garish pink (which Bayer had used for the Paepckes’ house) and a bold “Bayer Blue,” as it came to be known. A few brave home and business owners opted for the Bayer blue: “several examples survived a good 50 years and have only recently been changed,” says Amy Simon, Aspen’s historic preservation officer.
Bayer also oversaw restoration of the Wheeler Opera House, which had been heavily damaged by several fires, and then embarked on his first new building: the Sundeck, an octagonal warming hut at the summit of Aspen Mountain, 11,212 feet above sea level. Designed with Benedict, the building offered expansive mountain views and a central stone fireplace for heating and water collection. The idea was clever enough: snow on the copper roof, which slanted inward, would melt from the heat of the fireplace and then drain into storage containers. But high winds prevented much snow from accumulating, and the system never worked as Bayer had intended.
The Birth of the Institute
It was Paepcke’s focus on arts and culture that inspired Bayer’s most significant project in Aspen. In the summer of 1949, Paepcke and Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, organized a 20-day Goethe Bicentennial celebration, commissioning Eero Saarinen to design a large white canvas tent for the proceedings, which included lectures, discussions, and concerts. The event spawned the Aspen Institute, where business leaders could read and discuss writings by great thinkers; the Aspen Music Festival and School, which became a separate organization in 1954; and the now-defunct International Design Conference.
Paepcke soon saw the need for a permanent campus with meeting rooms, lodging, dining facilities, and a recreational center. For Bayer, the chosen site on the outskirts of town was a blank slate where he could create a unified campus—“an environment greater than the sum of its parts,” as Chanzit describes it in her book. Bayer designed (again with Benedict as the associate architect) a series of low-slung structures that are delightful in their simplicity. First came Seminar Hall, completed in 1953 and now named after one of the Koch brothers, David, a part-time Aspen resident. Built with cinder blocks and a steel frame, the building featured two hexagon-shaped seminar rooms with nonhierarchical six-sided tables to facilitate discussions. For one outside wall, Bayer designed an abstract mural—which mimics Aspen’s mountain landscape—using the sgraffito technique he had learned at the Bauhaus from his mentor, Wassily Kandinsky. For other exterior walls, Bayer created repeating patterns with the concrete blocks to add texture and a sense of movement.
In 1954, Bayer designed three flat-roofed, hotel-style guest chalets (renovated and expanded in the 1990s) and a central building with a restaurant and offices (now called the Walter Isaacson Center, it’s been remodeled and expanded several times). A year later came the Health Center, with its whimsical, colorful typographic entrance mural and an exterior spiral staircase leading to a rooftop sundeck. Bayer completed the Walter Paepcke Memorial Building—which contains offices, a library, a gallery, and a 400-seat auditorium—in 1962. Completely renovated in 2010, it’s another concrete-block gem, a kind of cousin to Seminar Hall next door.
Bayer’s “low planar architecture” was rooted in the “understated Bauhaus aesthetic,” as Chanzit writes in her book. “Function … is primary in determining shape. All unessential ornamentation is eliminated; materials such as cinderblock are not covered but are open to ‘honest’ view; the simple flat architectural parts echo one against another to yield a sense of unity without any slavish imitation from building to building. And the restful simplicity of design never attempts to compete with the splendor of the natural environment.”
In 1959, Paepcke had hatched a plan to create an “architectural village” near the institute that would feature houses designed by more than a dozen prominent architects, including Gropius, Breuer, I.M. Pei, FAIA, Minoru Yamasaki, Edward Durell Stone, Harry Weese, and Philip Johnson. Groundbreaking was set for April 1960, but Paepcke, who had been diagnosed with lung and bone cancer, died that month. The village was never built.
By the time Bayer left Aspen in 1974 and moved to Montecito, Calif., where he died in 1985, Aspen was on its way to become the posh retreat it is today. “He and Elizabeth Paepcke were both horrified by the overwhelming displays of wealth,” says Harry Teague, AIA, who moved to Aspen in 1966 hoping to work for Bayer but was hired by Benedict instead. “They were pretty discouraged.” Aspen, Elizabeth said in a 1990 interview, four years before she died in her home there, “had become a town of glitz and glamour … a nut without a kernel.”
A Playful Spirit that Endures
Today, Bayer’s distinctly modern buildings, Teague says, offer a sharp contrast to Aspen’s remaining Victorians. “Bayer was an Austrian, so he loved the mountains. He saw that we have these deep blue skies, and for much of the year, there are big piles of snow on the ground. So he placed his institute buildings on plinths to get them out of the snow, and he gave them white roofs to stand out against the blue sky. A lot of Bauhaus design ideas got co-opted into tedious, not-terribly-original styles. But the real Bauhaus idea was to keep it fresh, and that’s what Bayer did at the Aspen Institute.”
Bayer’s playful spirit still permeates the serene campus—in the human-scaled buildings, yes, but also in his other creations at the site: an earthen mound, perhaps the first example of landscape as sculpture; a marble garden, constructed with discarded pieces from a nearby quarry; and the “Kaleidoscreen,” a sculpture made of seven colorful aluminum louvers that rotate. To the institute’s credit, Bayer’s artwork—paintings, prints, tapestries, photographs—is everywhere: in meeting rooms, reception areas, and in a permanent gallery in the Doerr-Hosier Center, a conference center designed by Jeffrey Berkus, AIA, and built in 2007.
To the extent that Paepcke and Bayer aspired to bring a modernist sensibility to Aspen, they largely succeeded (it looks nothing like Vail, with its faux-Bavarian buildings). Victor Lundy built a dramatic brick-and-glass vacation home for his family next door to one of Bayer’s residences. Benedict designed a number of Wright-inspired structures, and many of the architects who worked for him went on to start their own firms locally. Weese, who knew Paepcke in Chicago, became a part-time resident and designed three vacation homes, all of which survive. But his masterful 1972 concrete-block Given Institute, owned by the University of Colorado, was demolished in 2011. “That was a huge loss,” says Simon, “but the city has landmarked about 250 Victorians and 50 modern buildings, including all of Bayer’s remaining structures. That’s pretty good.”
Bayer’s remaining architectural works include most of the Aspen Institute buildings, as well as two residences he designed in the adjacent West End neighborhood. The 1888 Queen Anne–style Victorian that Bayer and his wife lived in for many years is landmarked. A handsome 1966 Bayer-Benedict library (now an office building) still stands on Aspen’s Main Street, but given its Wrightian features, it appears more Benedict than Bayer.
But not everything has survived. The Sundeck, which saw numerous alterations over the years, was demolished in 1999. A simple house and studio Bayer designed for himself and his wife—on the side of Red Mountain, today one of Aspen’s priciest neighborhoods—is long gone. (Pavilion-like, it was arguably Bayer’s most Miesian building and was featured on the cover of House Beautiful in 1966.) A music tent with an origami-like roof that Bayer designed in 1965, to replace Saarinen’s original canvas version, suffered from poor acoustics and other flaws (it leaked, for one thing) and was in turn replaced in 2000 by one designed by Teague.
Lissa Ballinger, who curates the Aspen Institute’s extensive art collection (which includes a number of works by Bayer), says she is often asked what Bayer would think of Aspen today. “I think he would be absolutely thrilled that his campus is alive and well,” she says. “At the same time, I think he would be distressed by some of the growth in Aspen.”
One of the animating principles of the Bauhaus was that design should affect social change—an ideal that more often than not got lost after the school’s alumni decamped for the U.S. As the art historian Elaine Hochman writes in Bauhaus: Crucible of Modernism (Fromm International, 1997), “Gropius’s Bauhaus … meant something far more than the stark and simple technological style that America imagined. It meant to change the world through how it looked and lived.”
It’s precisely this mission of social reform that’s being overlooked in the anniversary celebration of the Bauhaus in Aspen, where the average cost of a single-family home is about $7 million (an 1890 Victorian and guesthouse recently sold for $21.95 million), and where many resort employees commute daily from more than an hour away. Teague, for one, is currently designing a $15 million affordable-housing complex in Basalt, down valley from Aspen, to house employees of the Aspen Skiing Co. Still, the demand for housing in Aspen remains acute. Bayer may not have designed affordable housing himself, but his low-cost buildings at the Aspen Institute glowingly demonstrate how to do a lot with a little.
For Teague, Bayer remains an invigorating force. The Aspen Institute campus, he says, still evokes what Paepcke had called the “Aspen Idea”: the notion that you could create a place that would nurture the mind, body, and spirit. And his memories of Bayer endure. “Even when he was working,” Teague recalls, “he’d have an ascot on. He was always impeccably groomed. His hair was never out of place. He was very elegant, and rather lovely.”