Herbert Bayer and the Aspen Institute


Ann Mullins


Docomomo US/Colorado


Regional Spotlight, Colorado
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Rocky Mountain Modern Part Two:
Herbert Bayer and the Aspen Institute

In 1939, Elizabeth Paepcke came to ski in Aspen. It was a sleepy town, barely 700 in population, that existed on ranching, farming, and remnant mining; a very different town than the city of 1892 with a population of 12,000, at the height of the Colorado Silver Boom. That era ended abruptly with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which decimated the silver mining industry in Aspen.

When Elizabeth visited, a small ski area had already been developed at the junction of Castle Creek and Conundrum Valley. In 1936, Ted Ryan formed the Highlands Bavarian Corporation and built the first Aspen area ski lodge. The ski area grew, races were held, and the ski area started to gain international recognition.

Then in 1943, with a World War raging in Europe and increasing US involvement, Ted Ryan offered his lodge and property to the US Army for $1 for the training of ski troops. The 87th Mountain Battalion eventually moved to Camp Hale, outside of Leadville, for training as the 10th Mountain Division. Most of skiers from the Bavarian Corporation joined the 10th Mountain Division and eventually fought in the Italian Alps. Many perished but of those who didn’t, a large number returned to Aspen.

Elizabeth didn’t return to Aspen until 1945 when she brought her husband Walter Paepcke, a wealthy Chicagoan, to the still-empty town, but Walter saw in it the potential to embody his vision as a gathering place for thought leaders, artists, and musicians from all over the world.  Walter’s ‘Aspen Idea’ was ‘mind, body, spirit’, a place where leaders and artists could expand their minds through academic offerings, sustain their bodies with Colorado outdoor experiences, and inspire their spirit in the extraordinary Aspen setting.   To put his plan in motion, he first formed the Aspen Skiing Company in 1946.  He then invited the Bauhaus-trained artist Herbert Bayer and his wife Joella to spend Christmas of 1946 in Aspen. He offered Bayer the job of designing and implementing his vision in Aspen through the newly formed Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, now the Aspen Institute.

Herbert Bayer was born in Haig, Austria, a small mountain town, on April 5, 1900.   In his youth he apprenticed with a local architecture and decorative arts studio.  In 1921 at age 21 he applied for and was accepted as a student of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany.  In 1925 when the school moved to Dessau, he became a “master,” the term the school used to refer to teachers. The Bauhaus closed in 1933 under pressure and threats from the Nazi regime.  Many of the students and masters disbursed throughout the world, but Bayer stayed in Germany until 1937, then went to Italy and in 1939 fled to the United States. Over the next few years he lived in New York City, making a name for himself in graphic design and exhibit design.  He met Walter Paepcke through his work with some of the large advertising firms in New York and Chicago.

After the Christmas of 1946, the Bayers moved to Aspen and Herbert began his life’s work at the Aspen Institute, creating one of the modern treasures of Aspen.  The Institute, developed on 40 acres of former ranchland, consists of over a dozen buildings, most designed by Bayer, and several outdoor structures and landscape art interspersed throughout the campus. 

Bayer began with a landscape master plan which located three nodes of activity: residential and visitor amenities; academic and administrative functions; and related institutions. Access between each of these nodes was by a series of trails, along the river, through sagebrush meadows or along a central spine.  Bayer’s goal was to immerse the visitor in nature, creating varied experiences, when moving from one activity to the next.  The residential node currently consists of the Aspen Meadows Reception Center (1957), The Health Center (1955), and six guest suite buildings (1954, 1993, 2008, & 2015).

Bayer designed the Health Center in 1955 to support the ‘body’ element in ‘mind, body, spirit’. It was a state-of-the-art health center with doctors and trainers in residence to assess the health and physical condition of visitors and create a custom program for maximum wellness.  The building has changed little from its original configuration. The Reception Center was designed in partnership with Fritz Benedict, a Taliesin-trained architect also based in Aspen. It combines the Bauhaus principals clearly seen in the Health Center with the Wrightian influence brought to the project by Benedict. The Reception Center retains some original features but has been modified many times. 

When visitors first came to the Institute the accommodations were tents and the programs ran only in the summer. In 1954 three structures were built to house these visitors. Bauhaus influence was seen in these in buildings in the geometric forms, the indoor-outdoor relationship, innovative materials, and the use of color. The buildings lacked weatherization and eventually they were rebuilt. Although they were rebuilt and not restored, the new buildings also employed Bauhaus principles. The rebuilt structures form a residential complex surrounded by native vegetation that supports Bayer’s original design intent.

The second node, academic/administrative, is comprised of the both the first and last buildings Bayer designed and on the site. The Seminar Building, the first building on campus, was completed in 1953. Bayer designed the building as several hexagonal pods connected by common area. The six-sided rooms and discussion tables were intended to encourage the free flow of conversation without a leader (teacher) or followers (students), and equality of conversation and contribution.  On the south wall of the building is the iconic artwork by Bayer, Sgraffito Wall.  Using a technique he learned from Wassily Kandinsky, Bayer depicts the undulating surface of a mountain landscape. 

The last building Bayer built on Campus was the Walter Paepcke Memorial Building in 1962. Paepcke died unexpectedly in 1960, and this building honored his creation and support of the Aspen Institute.  The Memorial Building is the heart of the campus, containing a 400-seat auditorium, library, reception area, gallery, and staff offices. Again, Bayer adhered to Bauhaus principles, including innovative use of inexpensive and new materials, integration of building and landscape, hexagonal pods to foster creativity and equality, and built in flexibility of the interior spaces. 

The related institutes are comprised of the Aspen Center for Physics and Aspen Music Festival and School. In 1961, George Stranahan, with a newly acquired Ph.D., decided to settle down in Aspen and promote his passion, physics.  The Aspen Center for Physics opened in 1962, housed in buildings designed by Bayer.  The Aspen Music Festival and School were founded by Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke in 1949 as a two-week bicentennial celebration of 18th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The first ‘tent’ was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1949. Bayer redesigned and rebuilt the tent in 1965, and in 2000, Harry Teague designed and constructed the current Music Tent.

While the buildings of the Aspen Institute are remarkable, it is the landscape art and earthwork that Bayer executed on campus that speak even more to the Modern Movement in Aspen. In 1955 Bayer designed and constructed the Grass Mound and the Marble Garden.  Both the Grass Mound and the Marble Garden are the results of years of study and experimentation. Each of Bayer’s projects were studied for years, implemented and restudied again. The Grass Mound is a 42’ diameter ring of molded earth with a mound and corresponding depression in the center, as well as a large native rock. It is virtually intact from when it was constructed in 1955, remaining powerful despite the dramatically different context.

The Marble Garden, also designed and constructed in 1955, is a grouping of marble remnants on a 36’ square concrete aggregate base. The ideas for the Marble Garden show up as early as 1925 in a drawing that Bayer did at that time while at the bauhaus. The base consists of 4’x4’ squares of concrete aggregate, including three squares of turf and a 12’ x 12’ pool with a waterspout of up to 20’ high.  The marble remnants (20) were collected from a defunct marble quarry in Marble, CO about 40 miles outside of Aspen.  The Yule marble from this quarry is known for its brilliance and uniformity, but it is clear from the pieces in the sculpture that they were discards because of coloring and inconsistent veining.  Bayer and his friends, including Elizabeth Paepcke, collected these pieces at the closed quarry in Marble and placed them with intention on the 36’ square pad.  

Designed in 1973, Anderson Park was the culmination of Bayer’s work at the Institute. It occupies the center third of the campus and is the connector between the residential node and the academic/administration node.  The park consists of four mounds of different diameters, circumference, gradient, vegetative treatment, and design details. A large native rock left in its original location is adjacent to a kidney-shaped pond in which a doughnut-shaped piece of turf seems to float.   The site gently slopes from both ends to create an area lower than the rest of the campus, allowing the park to be buffered from campus activity and creating a sense of quiet and seclusion for visitors to the park.

The latest acquisition by the Institute is Anaconda, a sculpture created by Bayer in 1978 for the lobby of the Anaconda building in downtown Denver. The lobby was renovated in the 80’s when Anaconda was acquired by BP, and the sculpture put in storage. In 2015 it was offered to the Institute.  Money was raised for the purchase, transport, and installation and in May of 2016 the seven piece marble sculpture was installed near the Paepcke Memorial Building. 

Bayer began his work at the institute in 1947 under the patronage of Walter Paepcke. After Paepcke died, Robert O. Anderson took over leadership of the Institute and became Bayer’s second dedicated patron. Bayer moved to California in 1974 for health reasons and lived in Santa Barbara, continuing his work until he died in 1985, but the bulk of his work and his most significant pieces were completed in Aspen at the Institute. With the excellent stewardship of the Aspen institute, the entire campus exists as the foundation of Aspen modernism.

About the Author

Ann Mullins has been a landscape architect for over 30 years, working throughout the country. Ann graduated from Wells College, Aurora, NY with a Bachelors of Science in Mathematics, After several years of travel and work she returned to graduate school and completed a Masters of Landscape Architecture from Utah State University, Logan UT. Ann began her career at Jones & Jones in Seattle, WA, worked at Carol Johnson Associates, Cambridge MA and Sasaki Associates, Watertown MA before co-founding Civitas in Denver, CO in 1984. In 2004 Ann became the Campus Landscape Architect at University of Colorado at Boulder. Ann moved to Aspen in 2006 and worked for Designworkshop for several years before starting her own firm again. She is currently working with an emphasis on cultural and historic landscapes at her firm, wjmdesign. In 2013 Ann successfully ran for Aspen City Council. After serving her four-year term as a Council Member she was re-elected in May 2017 to serve her second term.

Rocky Mountain Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHouston and Las Vegas. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Rocky Mountain Modern Part Three
NCAR: Modernism on the Mesa