July 23, 2006
“Walter, you simply must see it. It’s the most beautifully untouched place in the world.” And so Elizabeth Paepcke wooed her husband to Aspen in the late 1930s. The town was quiet, the streets were dirt, the population was small, and the rural character was charming and idyllic.Because the old mining town was removed from urban distractions, Walter Paepcke chose Aspen as the venue for the Goethe Bicentennial in 1949. The rest is history. Aspen became the city it is today, ironically forfeiting the charm that first endeared the Paepckes more than 50 years ago.Walter Paepcke made a conscious decision to host a renaissance for humanism in this once rustic, mountain backwater rather than in a big city. Aspen was the cloister he sought, buffered from the buzz of popular culture. The mountains formed a physical boundary, a rim of closure around Aspen, shutting out the industrial world and preserving a native quality both elusive and tangible. The mountains were essential elements.”I felt elated like a boy coming to your miraculous place and could not get enough of roaming about,” exulted Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius when he visited Aspen in the 1950s. “I had a curious experience facing these great American scenes. First it makes one very humble standing on Buckskin Pass and looking from the mighty horizon to the flowers at one’s feet; then these beautiful sensations transform into an incessant stimulus of which I hope to make good use.”Albert Schweitzer, upon his visit to Aspen in 1949, said: “Aspen ist zu nach an den Himmel gabaut.” (Aspen is built too close to heaven.) It was not just the altitude that gave Schweitzer palpitations, but the proximity to wildness that enlivened his spirit.A participant at one of the early Aspen Institute seminars effused: “At such altitudes everything was a little sharper, in clearer focus, a little nearer the sky. Here there was no superficially cosmopolitan gathering, no arbitrary elite, but the most surprising and heady brew of Europe and the New World, of Weimar and the corner drugstore, of Goethe and cowboy boots.”The Aspen Institute, which grew from Paepcke’s Aspen, clearly defined its mission as a challenge to mainstream materialism: “For American business leaders to lift their sights above the possessions which possess them, to confront their own nature as human beings, to regain control over their own humanity by becoming more self-aware, more self-correcting and hence more self-fulfilling.”The Aspen experience of today often detracts from these idealistic goals more than it supports them. Paepcke’s Aspen has been tainted by an overlay of resort economics where material appetites hold sway over the more lofty goals and sentiments of the past. This occurred despite Paepcke’s restraint of the Aspen Ski Corp.”We don’t want to make Aspen a mass skiing center, but rather have it fairly selective and just large enough to make it entirely profitable, but not overrun, especially on weekends.”Today’s marketing promotions do just the opposite, clogging the streets with cars, filling the air with exhaust and dust, obliterating the rural character with noise and congestion. In the Aspen Music Tent last week during a blissful Bartók violin duet, the throbbing roar of urban traffic polluted the performance with a dismaying basso drone.Who could say today that Aspen is no longer the “superficially cosmopolitan gathering” of an “arbitrary elite,” the values of which are blatantly acquisitive? Are the mountains still guardians against an onslaught of distractions, or have they been whittled down to convenient backdrops for real estate brochures?”Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards,” said Kierkegaard. We must do both simultaneously if Aspen is to honor its cultural roots, and if we are to save what’s left of Paepcke’s Aspen.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.