Architectural rendering of the rooftop sculpture garden at the new Aspen Art Museum. Image courtesy of the Aspen Art Museum and Shigeru Ban Architects (SBA).

ASPEN - Throughout the Rocky Mountains and far beyond, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s forthcoming building for the Aspen Art Museum (AAM) has been generating major buzz. Not since the April 1889 debut of the state-of-the-art Wheeler Opera House – a sandstone palace replete with steam heating and electricity – has this one-time mining town seen an event with this kind of architectural, cultural and social significance.

This time around, Aspenites are marvelling about a 33,000-square-foot glass edifice over which floats an intricate origami-like screen made of paper impregnated with resin. Delicate as it appears, the façade will withstand the toughest of Aspen winters. “In designing a museum the programme is quite strict, but the building must be flexible,” explains the Tokyo-based Ban. “So for Aspen I designed a basket, in which you can hold many things.”

Anticipation for the new building only increased in March, when it was announced that Ban is the recipient of the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize. The decision confirms the prescience of the AAM trustees who selected Ban in 2007 for the job – the architect’s first museum commission in the United States.

While the general public is enthused about the building’s impending opening, the Museum’s community, including Aspen’s circle of serious contemporary art collectors, is positively electrified. The 2 August ribbon-cutting will follow the AAM’s tenth annual ArtCrush, a three-day event – sponsored by Sotheby’s – that in itself has come to be regarded as one of the art world’s most festive celebrations.

2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize-Winner Shigeru Ban. Image courtesy of © Benoit Tessier/Reuters/Corbis.

The event will mark a new chapter in the life of the museum, a non-collecting institution founded in 1979 and until now housed in a former electric plant (the first one west of the Mississippi River).

Several years ago, the trustees decided the museum had outgrown its home. Led by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson – a dynamo who is the Nancy and Bob Magoon Chief Executive Officer and Director of the institution – they embarked on a search for an architect. “We started with 36 firms,” she recounted a few months ago while leading a hard-hat tour of the building as it neared com-pletion. “We narrowed that down to five whom we invited to submit proposals.”

Ban’s submission wowed everyone immediately, as Zuckerman Jacobson recalls. “The selection committee said, ‘Can’t we just choose now?’ I said, ‘We need to honour the process.’ So we went around the world in five days to visit all the architects’ offices. Finally we took a vote in the Zurich airport. It was unanimous for Shigeru.”

Though they hope Ban’s new building will be one for the ages, the trustees were swayed by the architect’s large body of temporary structures, which he has designed around the world for humanitarian relief in the wake of disaster. This year’s Pritzker jurors in their decision also cited the poetic beauty of the transient materials such as paper tubes and plastic beer crates that Ban often uses in these projects, including his Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand and Paper Log Houses in Kobe, Japan.

“Whenever there is a natural or man-made disaster, Ban is always there,” says Zuckerman Jacobson. “When Shigeru started showing us this humanitarian work, it really touched everyone. His humanity imbues each of his endeavours so thoroughly, and his humility is a constant reminder of how grace and greatness can coexist.”

But after Ban accepted the job and arrived in Aspen to inspect the site, he was initially disappointed. Never having been there before, he assumed he would be building on land with unfettered views of the glorious peaks. Instead, although it is just a stone’s throw from the foot of Ajax Mountain, he found a plot of land wedged in the middle of Aspen’s historic downtown, where acreage is of course highly precious.

“I was expecting to see the mountains but couldn’t see anything,” the architect recalls. “But then I asked to go up on the roof of a neighbouring building. There, I saw the most glorious views.”

Architectural rendering of the grand staircase on the South Spring Street side of the new Aspen Art Museum. Image courtesy of the Aspen Art Museum and Shigeru Ban Architects (SBA).

The experience shaped his concept for the building. Its key components include a large glass elevator “moving room” and the “grand staircase,” which is divided into two parallel parts – one outside and one inside. A glass partition allows walkers on either side to see each other. The idea is for visitors to ascend immediately to the roof, making that essentially the museum’s entrance foyer. There, visitors can enjoy a stunning terrace, half of which is indoors, and covered by a gorgeous wooden truss. With spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding peaks and offering a café, it is unlike anything else around and destined to become a new town square. (Admission to the museum is free, thanks to a gift by AAM National Council members John and Amy Phelan.)

From here, the idea is for visitors to descend into the museum. “It is like the experience of skiing – you take a lift up to the top of the mountain, enjoy the view and then slide down,” says Ban.

Throughout the building, the architect sought to imbue it with a sense of transparency. “Museums are usually black boxes, but I wanted to make it as open as possible, to connect it to the town and make it a place where visitors could appreciate the beauty of Aspen from inside the building. I wanted it to be a place where even people who normally don’t go to museums would want to go.”

Aspen (population 6,680) may be the only small town on earth where such a world-class museum could be built. However, as long-time resident and AAM trustee Nancy Magoon points out, 22 of the world’s top 200 collectors (as ranked by ARTnews) have homes in Aspen.

“And it is not like many other places, where everybody seems to collect the same artists,” recounts Magoon over a latte at Peaches, a favourite local café. “Here, the collections are so individual and unique. It is a community of leaders, not followers.”

With her husband Bob, Nancy moved from Miami to Aspen 20 years ago, to retire – they thought. “When I left Florida, people said, ‘You’re going to be bored out of your mind.’ In fact, I have never been bored here for a minute. I don’t think I was here for 24 hours before someone asked me to get involved with the museum. We’re not just a ski town. There is so much to do.”

AAM Trustees Nancy Magoon, John Phelan and AAM Director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson. Photo by Riccardo S. Savi/Wireimage.

Though she is among the few trustees who live in Aspen full time, it was not difficult to raise funds for the new building, Magoon says. “Most of the other trustees also have big commitments to other museums; Aspen is their second or third home. But to their great credit, they all came through.

“We exceeded our wildest dreams,” she adds, speaking of both the money raised and the quality of the finished new AAM – which is one of only four accredited museums in Colorado.

The ribbon-cutting for the new building will take place the morning after the ArtCrush gala, which will include the presentation of the 2014 Aspen Award for Art to Ernesto Neto and a live auction of contemporary art conducted by Sotheby’s Oliver Barker (the event last year raised a total of $2.1 million for the institution).

On 9 August the AAM will open to the public with a series of stellar exhibitions. Yves Klein, David Hammons, Rosemarie Trockel and Jim Hodges are among the artists whose work will be featured in the four-level building’s six galleries – one
of which has been named after Frances Dittmer, one of the community’s most beloved and generous citizens, who was tragically killed in a plane crash earlier this year. “Frannie Dittmer was an incredible leader throughout our new building project. In many ways this project would not exist without her involvement,” says the director.

With its distinctive basket-like screen, the new AAM should become an instant local landmark and have no trouble attracting visitors. But nowhere on the façade is the name of the institution.

“We want people to come to it with a sense of curiosity,” says Zuckerman Jacobson. “We did our best to remove any barriers to the building. We want people to be open to the transcendent experience of art. You cannot make that happen
for someone – but if you provide the circumstances for people to come with an open mind, then it’s really limitless what can happen.”

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.