Bill Wiener: Guest opinion
September 29, 2010
Aspen is a compact mining town that has evolved over seven decades in a tight valley. Its architecture, ranging from Victorians to Swiss chalets to Bauhaus modern to post-World War II and much more, is eclectic, but its buildings share one quality: They are scaled so that they are friendly to the person on foot and compatible with our natural setting.
The proposed new art museum on the Wienerstube site, a soaring urban box that obliterates the view of Aspen Mountain, stands flush with the sidewalk on its two public sides. Without setbacks or landscaping, this colossus approach is a radical break with our tradition. Unaddressed aspects of the facility include no employee and visitor parking, employee housing, and increased vehicular traffic in an already-congested zone. Citizens of Aspen, meanwhile, were not consulted on a project whose massiveness will impact their lives and the character of the community.
If the museum is to be built in Aspen’s core, its design can be adjusted so as not to cast residents, visitors and businesses in deep shadow. The looming flaw of the proposal is its height, and that problem has solutions. Museums and theaters, like our below-grade Harris Hall, do not need windows. The top floor could easily be eliminated and replaced by a sub-basement, whose gallery space could even be extended beneath the mixed-use building planned to stand next to the museum. Additional measures to replace the area lost by elimination of the upper floor include:
1) Capturing the unused second-floor void which is between the glass building face and the surrounding screen by moving the windows out to become a part of the screen, to increase the floor area.
2) The elimination of programmed areas that are not essential, such as: the boardroom, since a board can meet when the museum is closed or off-site; and removal of any residential component to a non-museum location.
3) Is a cafe really needed in the downtown area?
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4) Why not acquire space in the proposed adjoining office building next door to use for “back-of-the-house” administrative functions? Consideration of all these elements taken together might reduce the area enough to eliminate the need for the upper floor and also make a sub-basement unnecessary.
Finally, an alternative plan merits consideration: conversion of The Given Institute into an art museum. Unlike the Wienerstube site, it possesses an outdoor area for events and sculptures. Its location near the Red Brick would create a new arts district, and this location adjoining ACES’ Hallam Lake enhances the ambiance. Imagine these three contiguous quasi-public areas working together. The impact on parking at the Given site would be far less severe, and the location is close to cross-town bus service. There is no hill to negotiate in walking to the Given site. It should be noted that last year plans were developed to expand the Given to about 21,000 gross square feet. If a basement were built under just the planned expansion, the gross area would exceed 27,000 square feet. If this is not enough space for the museum’s needs, then the basement or above-ground addition could just be made larger.
Best of all, elimination of a wildly unpopular proposal and rescue of a treasured institution would solve two problems at once. The art museum, instead of ignoring the town and incurring hostility, would gain the town’s support and applause by taking advantage of this opportunity.
If the Aspen Art Museum board is willing to think strategically instead of grandiosely, Aspen can have art without acrimony.
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