One hundred years ago, the 20th century’s most revolutionary and influential school of design, art and architecture was founded in Weimar, Germany. When the Nazis shut it down 14 years later, students and teachers fled to the cultural capitals of the world: Paris, Chicago, New York, etc. One such émigré, a Bauhaus instructor, traveled all the way to the American West, to an obscure little town that reminded him of his youth in Austria. The man was Herbert Bayer. The town was Aspen. And the vision, dreamed up by Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, was to create nothing short of a utopia. With their patronage, Bayer unleashed his Bauhausian ideals and aesthetics upon the sleeping beauty. On this centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, we tour the legacy of the small school reimagined in a small town—two tiny places that cast outsize shadows.
It took a lot of charm—and a lot of money—but Walter Paecke got his Bauhausler prize to move to Aspen in 1946 (thank goodness Bayer loved to ski!) and begin work on what would become the Aspen Institute campus. Located just outside of town, the open meadows were an ideal canvas for Bayer to layer his minimalist geometric designs and bold primary colors upon the sinuous and bulging landscape.
Bayer had a thing for hexagons, and for his first born in Aspen he designed twin hexagonal-shaped buildings with conference rooms that manifested the nonhierarchical, “roundtable” paradigm—still a relatively new concept at the time.
Walter Paepcke died abruptly at age 66. What would Aspen be like if he had lived to fully execute his vision? Bayer built his memorial building to echo the seminar building. It has since become the institute’s HQ, housing administrative offices, a gallery, auditorium and two hexagonal (naturally) conference rooms.
Herbert Bayer, 1975
Bayer learned the sgraffito technique (scratched plaster) from Kandinsky’s wall painting workshop back at the Bauhaus. The deeply etched, undulating lines mirror the contours of Red Mountain looming above. The mural was a communal nocturnal project accomplished by Bayer and some Aspen friends on a cool summer evening.
Love it or hate it, this is Bauhaus in its purest architectural expression. It’s boxy. It’s colorful. It’s cold. The Bauhaus wanted to return buildings to their most honest, geometric, egalitarian form, and while there is beauty in the simplicity, the Bauhaus style isn’t for everyone.
Marked by an 8-foot, brightly colored “HC,” the Health Center has a “gymnasium” (scaled more for yoga or old-timey calisthenics than, say, basketball) with weights, showers and sauna in the back. It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but it is easily the nicest piece of real estate on campus. On a triangle bluff overlooking the Roaring Fork and Castle Creek, it has some of the best views in the valley.
The current Benedict-Bayer Music tent is actually the third to occupy this plot, each version an artful ode to the last. The Jetsons’ favorite architect, Eero Saarinen (not exactly Bauhaus), built the first in 1949. Bayer did his pleated version in 1964. Harry Teague designed the current iteration in 2000.
Painted rotating panels of aluminum, this colorful piece originally sat sentinel over the pool. The panels rotated so as to moderate the wind and amplify the sun. It was painting, sculpture and tanning aid all in one.
Originally installed in 1952 for the International Design Conference, it later became the most fabulous pool cover in America. Another victim of Aspen’s successful growth, the pool was moved to the Health Center to make way for expanding facilities. The dome disappeared until it was faithfully replicated in 2010.
While a sculpture garden made out of giant slabs of carved marble may come across as so very Aspen and opulent, the sculpture was actually made of discarded pieces from a nearby quarry. It follows the “found object/ready-made” tradition made famous by Duchamp. Marcel had his urinals. Bayer had Marble, Colo.
The Grass Mound was Bayer’s first earthwork sculpture and one of the first modern earthwork sculptures in history. Anderson Park took that art form to the next level with a fully realized site of dips, mounds and ponds. The pastoral respite separating the conference buildings from the hotel is the heart of the institute. A place of meadows and mountains—manicured at great expense—but still wild, the park is a place to stroll, absorb, reflect or meditate. It remains the perfect metaphor for the idea of Aspen itself.
When the Denver Art Museum was clearing out its basement and asked if the institute would be in interested in taking this vintage work by Bayer, the reaction was, “Yes, please!” The Atlantic Richfield Company originally commissioned the work for the lobby of its Anaconda Building in Denver (no snakes involved). Bayer hand-selected the marble from Italy. Even though it looks like it might be spelling out a word, it is, alas, abstract.
Just kidding! These grand 19th-century buildings are only pigs insofar as they are big and beloved. However, in 1946 they were in pretty terrible shape: The Wheeler was burned (some say for the insurance money) while the Jerome was totally dilapidated with only 10 working rooms. Bayer oversaw their renovation as well as several Victorian homes around town. At the request of Mrs. Paepcke—who was growing tired of brown everything—Bayer chose bright paint colors. He painted the Jerome white with robin’s-egg blue trim. In fact, he used the blue color so often that it would become known as “Bayer Blue.”
For the original Sundeck at the top of Aspen Mountain, Bayer collaborated with Wisconsin native and Frank Lloyd Wright disciple Fritz Benedict. The octagonal warming hut offered panoramic views, a convivial atmosphere and some creative engineering. The inverted roof slanted toward the center, where the central fireplace melted the snow and the runoff would drain to tanks in the basement to be used for the toilets. Great idea, though unfortunately it never worked. It was almost always too windy and cold for the snow to melt with any consistency. So many additions were put on over the years, the only original part left standing is the fireplace.
Having Herbert Bayer design your marketing collateral would be a bit like having Sheryl Sandberg do your social media. Bayer had been at the cutting edge of graphic design in Germany for years, both at the Bauhaus and at Vogue Berlin, the birthplace of modern design and advertising.
Check out bauhaus100aspen.org for a full schedule of centennial events, tours and happenings.
Photography by: OPENING PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ASPEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY RINGQUIST COLLECTION; ASPEN INSTITUTE PHOTO BY DAVID STILLMAN MEYER; HEALTH CENTER PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ASPEN MEADOWS; KALEIDOSCREEN PHOTO BY GABRIELA HERMAN; PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ASPEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY: BAYER PHOTO, CASSATT COLLECTION; ANDERSON PARK PHOTO, CHAMBERLAIN COLLECTION; SUNDECK PHOTO, GROVER COLLECTION