new aspen art museum

Dissolving Boundaries: Landscape at the New Aspen Art Museum


The New Aspen Art Museum landscape harnesses a restrained plant palette and everyday materials to alter visitors’ perceptions of what comprises a streetscape. Here, in the heart of Aspen, Colorado, the boundaries between street and structure dissolve, which renders the pedestrian area richly vegetated, sculpturally adorned, at once welcoming and thought-provoking. As the first urban bioretention project in the city, it sets the bar for beauty, functionality, and environmental responsibility. Conceived in concert with the New Aspen Art Museum structure, landscape and building strive for lightness and cohesion that allows the voice of the installations and the essential character of Aspen to spring forth through the design.


Downtown Aspen is a place of paradoxical fascination: it is a rural city with an urban feel, a historic place known for its innovative art and institutions, and an inviting tourist destination with a thriving local culture. The landscape at the New Aspen Art Museum showcases these harmonious contrasts with a playful pedestrian-focused streetscape that incorporates native vegetation and classic materiality sculpted into dreamlike, modern forms. It is a beautiful landscape with figurative and literal hidden depths, Aspen’s first urban bioretention project that handles stormwater, snowmelt, and urban drainage through a series of curb cuts, planted basins, and sand filters. As an institution, the Aspen Art Museum continually questions the parameters of contemporary art, bringing cutting-edge collections to the city of Aspen in keeping with a long tradition of artistic appreciation and education. Opening to the public for the first time in 1979, the museum's first exhibit included works by Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Chuck Close, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Mapplethorpe, Claes Oldenberg, and AndyWarhol, among others. Since that time, the museum has provided the community with numerous opportunities to engage with powerful and challenging exhibitions. In its role as a client for this project, the museum encouraged designs that would relate to tradition in innovative and contemporary ways. The solution had to be open enough to host a wide variety of works and strong enough to communicate values of education and immersion in art, culture, and society.


The landscape architect approached the project with a focus on artistry; on how to create space with physical lightness and conceptual weight. Environmental and cultural data such as: urban drainage patterns and volumes, stormwater contaminants, snow storage needs, urban microclimates, pedestrian patterns, event timing, and space requirements were rigorously studied so that each design move would respond to multiple needs and desires on-site. The relatively small landscape and streetscape area challenged the landscape architect to find a layered approach that stratified design responses yet kept the space open and flexible.


TheNew Aspen Art Museum is the product of a richly collaborative design process driven by the public, the museum, and a world-renowned architect, working in conjunction with local architects, engineers, and a visionary lighting design firm. Each entity enriched the evolution of the landscape character from concept through construction. At the forefront of the process was a collective commitment to integrating transparency, innovation, and timelessness into designed systems that accommodate gathering, contemplation, and ongoing interaction with the ever-changing installations of a non-collecting institution. Flexibility was a key piece of the landscape. With the ephemeral nature of exhibits in mind, the landscape architect chose a permeable paving system that could be reset as necessary to accommodate sculpture. This detail also serves to infiltrate stormwater, increasing the site’s previous area. The belief that each element and detail should serve multiple functions as a critical design value and ensures the ongoing vitality of the landscape.



Intended to endure the harsh environment at roughly 8000 ft above sea level, the materials utilized for the New Aspen Art Museum exude a sense of sleek rusticity that is translated throughout the landscape. Designed to withstand shifts in museum culture and seasonal fluctuations, landscape architectural elements define a series of adaptable spaces that foreground art and interaction while connecting the architecture back to its context. From modular furnishings to varied bloom times, dynamism and the marking of temporal change are integral to design intent. Inspired by the architect's vision for the structure, the landscape architect opted to incorporate simple, honest materials that are true to their origins, yet inspired in their applications. From the selection of a native plant palette to wooden bench paneling that assumes a liquid quality, landscape materials and detailing at the New Aspen Art Museum are both contextually relevant and aesthetically evocative.


Plantings and landscape structures present a public threshold from the streetscape to the museum as a cultural center. Pervious paving wraps the building, inviting community interaction in an extension of architectural patterning. Strategically placed curb-cuts invite stormwater into lushly planted basins which serve as the performative underbelly of ribbon-like seat walls. The vegetation facilitates a sense of enclosure at a human scale, embracing areas of informal and spontaneous gathering. This new addition to downtown Aspen offers a contemporary example of the capacity of the constructed landscape to both inspire public engagement and integrate functional infrastructure. In the architecture and the surrounding landscape, elements of the built environment serve as the museum's only permanent collection,’ catalyzing community interaction with a dynamic landscape. The woven wood and glass façade imbue the building with a sense of permeability that allows the passerby, walking through the streetscape, to directly engage with the galleries. The landscape architect also guided design decisions on the building’s green roof. This floating garden utilizes similar paving and planting strategies to the streetscape within the building structure, rendering the distinction between inside and outside, building and landscape, indistinct. This fusion of built environment is revolutionary in its dissolution of experiential boundaries.



This project demonstrates the landscape architect’s commitment to advancing low-impact development and stormwater management in mountainous regions, an area with limited documentation and research. To achieve bioretention goals, the landscape architect specified pervious paving, structural soils, and plants that speed infiltration and absorption. Native blue flag (Iris missouriensis) and Redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea) are particular stars, known for their tolerance of road salt and inundation. The basins serve as a living laboratory for performance metrics related to urban stormwater management altitude, and the paving detail is now an approved standard for the City of Aspen. As seasons and art installations pass, experience is continually regenerated and reinvigorated. The landscape at the New Aspen Art Museum meets the museum's goals of innovation and programmatic function, adds value to the city, and redefines what urban streetscapes can achieve in terms of connectivity, creativity, and resilience.

The project is featured in the September 2014 edition of Architectural Record and is the recipient of a 2017 AIA award, and a 2015 Colorado Chapter of the ASLA Merit award.


project type: landscape architecture

location: aspen, colorado

client: aspen art museum