The art of building an architecture dialogue

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, executive director of the Aspen Art Museum, has long had her eye on architecture. The first exhibition she ever curated, at the Jewish Museum in New York City, focused on the work of esteemed American architect Louis Kahn.That exhibit, Louis I. Kahn Drawings: Synagogue Projects, dates back to the mid-’90s. Since then, Jacobson has seen the world catch up to her in its interest in architecture. About four years ago, Rem Koolhaas, the prominent Dutch-born architect, came to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, where Jacobson worked as a curator.”And it was like he was a rock star,” she said. “It was an audience that sat a thousand people, and there was a line of a thousand more outside. We had to sneak through the back and come up under the stage to get our seats.”Koolhaas is one of a handful of contemporary architects who have become nearly household names. Frank Gehry, whose warped lines distinguish such buildings as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, in New York state, leads the pack in name recognition. I.M. Pei, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, and partners Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron all register in the public consciousness.Aspen, once a center, at least in America, for Bauhaus-style architecture and design, may be lagging behind the times. Asked what great buildings the town could boast, Jacobson mentioned just three: the Pitkin County Courthouse, the Hotel Jerome and Buckminster Fuller’s dome on the Aspen Institute grounds.Jacobson is looking to raise the local level of awareness of architecture. On Wednesday, the Aspen Art Museum begins the Architecture Lecture Series, a three-year program that will feature talks by four architects each year. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma opens the series with an appearance at 5:30 p.m. at Paepcke Auditorium. The series is co-presented with the Aspen Institute and the city of Aspen’s Community Development Department. Admission is free, and all are welcome to attend.The series continues with New York architect Richard Gluckman, who designed the Dia Art Foundation in New York state and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, on June 7; and Elizabeth Diller, who designed the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, in early July. The final speaker, appearing in late summer, has yet to be confirmed.”I think that there’s a lot more building going on, and a lot of it is a lot more conscious,” said Jacobson, of the current high profile for architecture and architects. “People are realizing that buildings are more than just buildings; they’re envelopes for living. People want more out of architecture than pure functionality. Maybe not in Aspen, but people spend most of their time in buildings.”Jacobson noted that the rise in the interest in architecture has gone hand in hand with the raising of some of the most spectacular projects the world has seen. She points specifically to two current projects, both being built in Beijing: the National Stadium, being constructed for the 2008 Summer Olympics, designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & De Meuron; and the CCTV Tower, designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, of which Rem Koolhaas is the founder and a partner.”They’re huge architectural projects, beyond what’s ever been done before in the world,” said Jacobson. “More expensive, more complex. They’re masterpieces.”Jacobson’s own interest in architecture is expanding in part because of a project she hopes to launch. For several years, the Aspen Art Museum has been looking to relocate from its North Mill Street building (originally, the city of Aspen’s electric plant) to a site in the downtown core. High on the list of locations is the strip along the north side of Main Street, from Mill Street to the Zupancis property. A meeting was planned for Tuesday involving representatives of the museum, the city of Aspen, Pitkin County and the library; a potential outcome of the meeting was scheduling a design charette for later this month regarding the redevelopment of that area. All of the architects speaking in the Architecture Lecture series, said Jacobson, are interested in taking on the project.”It’s no secret we are hoping to build a new building in the downtown core of Aspen,” said Jacobson. “When we get to do so, we’d like to produce a signature piece of architecture, which would be a gift for the city.”Interestingly, building an art museum is among the toughest tricks facing contemporary architects. Museums – Gehry’s Bilbao, Libeskind’s new Denver Art Museum, Gluckman’s buildings, and the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, both set to be updated by Italian architect Renzo Piano – have gotten more than their share of attention. It could be said that the architecture craze began with I.M. Pei’s pyramidal entrance to the Louvre, built in 1989. But not all of the new buildings are judged to be successful; often, they have been criticized as overshadowing the art inside.”It’s a great challenge to museum boards, directors and cities, to remember, when they’re building a new museum, that it is a place for art,” Jacobson said. “And the architecture needs to honor that, rather than show off and put itself first.”For the Aspen Art Museum, and the city of Aspen, the project starts with thinking and talking about architecture, through the Architecture Lecture series.”One of my mantras here is, I’m just interested in promoting a dialogue,” said Jacobson. “Giving people information, and letting the conversation start.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is


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