Messy vitality

Paul Andersen

Planners are still referring to “messy vitality” when discussing Aspen’s downtown ambiance because they desire the diversity, dynamism and spontaneity that doesn’t exist in rigidly planned communities. Take Beaver Creek, a safe, clean, predictable, bland theme park of faux chateaus with a quasi-Western motif. “messy vitality” is anathema to such a cliché, which targets consumers with a skier’s version of Disneyland.Consider Vail and Aspen, which are separated by magnitudes of imagination. Aspen scorned Vail from the very beginning because it was not an honest expression of a vital community. Even today, local T-shirts are emblazoned: “ASPEN is not a-VAIL-able.”The fact that Aspen planners embraced “messy vitality” in the first place is a sign that Aspen has indeed become “a-VAIL-able.” The shift from real to fake is driven by the mad pace of development as it overruns the continuum of community character.Aspen started out in 1880 as a cluster of tents. By the 1890s, it had grown into a patchwork of plank-sided shacks, fast maturing into a grid of city streets marked by barns, stables, sheds, mine tipples, occasional grandiose Peach-blow sandstone edifices, and a scattering of mail order Victorian houses.The diversity of Aspen’s architecture reflected the diversity of its population. With a backdrop of wild mountains, the cityscape captured a frontier mystique that grew on its own, as if by scattered seeds.The “messy vitality” planners strive for in Aspen today aspires to a community shaped primarily from topography. The mountain landscape appealed to the people who migrated here, defined the lives they led, and influenced the values they held. Now topography is less influential because development literally overshadows it.”Messy vitality” comes up as a planning goal because organically grown communities are in peril. Today’s large scale developments preclude individuality and focus instead on mass appeal, or at least what developers consider appealing.Aspen Highlands base village is an example of such a market approach. The developer scraped down the old, staked out the new, and erected a wall of structures that have no relationship with the land and little integration with history. Snowmass Village is doomed by the same corporate atmosphere – an Intrawest-spawned homogenization that will be as soulless and devoid of character as Vail was in the ’60s.In the mid-valley, Willits is charting the same course – a development that looks like it popped up out of a cow pasture, which it did. The infusion of a local town atmosphere will require magic if developers hope to overcome the mood of sterility derived from a layout of monolithic building blocks.Glenwood Springs has gone the full distance with the new Meadow Muffin Mall, just south of I-70. This abysmal assemblage of predictable, rubber-stamped chain stores is an insult to the imagination and a monument to the bland consumer culture that patronizes it.With each gargantuan development we lose character that has taken decades to establish. “Messy vitality” is not part of this new picture because the developers are generally homogenous among themselves in the way they view “progress.””Messy vitality” requires a measure of chaos that works as a leavening to enhance vibrant, creative living. You can’t plan it. You can’t create it. It grows by itself like a mould from the combined ingredients of a community that spurns collective planning in deference to eclectic nature.To preserve “messy vitality,” we must scale down developments and make sure they fit the context of their communities, not redefine them. Residents must have a say in the design process, because they’re the ones who will live with it.Finally, I think that every developer should live for a year in whatever they build, so they can see for themselves that “messy vitality” is vital to being alive.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.