Siedlung Shrugged "What is this Place?"
We have no laws in this valley, no rules, no formal organizations of any kind.
We come here because we need to rest."
They were houses, small and new, with naked angular shapes and the glitter of broad windows."
In scenic northwest Aspen, Colorado, sits an unlikely example of the Bauhaus-inspired "International Style"-the Aspen Institute at Aspen Meadows. Here in 1950, Walter Paepcke, Chair of the Container Corporation of America, founded the Institute as a broadly intellectual seminar campus, a place where world leaders and visiting scholars could convene to discuss "the complex social issues" facing the rapid world globalization. To build his dream, he hired Bauhaus graphics guru Herbert Bayer to design a minimalist project to house his world-class participants. It was to be a modernist American housing project constructed in the spirit of the German Siedlungen of the ’20s.
"In Bayer’s hands, the Aspen Meadows acres were to become a vast testing ground for Bauhaus ideas, a mountain-bound stage for the celebration of all that he learned as a student and teacher in his years at Weimar and Dessau," reads the Institute’s publicity material. However taken Paepcke may have been with the simple, graphic lines of the Bauhaus style, the Aspen Institute program was a far cry from the socialist ideals that drove the early seidlung projects. "Worker" housing, as championed by the Frankfurt School, the Bauhaus clan or their modernist Viennese supporters, sought to economically, efficiently and hygienically situate the thousands post-W.W.I Europeans who were rapidly relocating to urban centers. Striping away decoration and relishing stark, "purist" forms, early modernists like Mies van der Rohe, Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius and Ernst May hoped to challenge and redefine the modern family’s lifestyle through design. The most enduring American translation of such projects as the Weissenhof Seidlung was pure style. What we find at Bayer’s Institute is "Modern" only in its general aesthetic; it is a capitalist retreat along Bauhaus design theme.
Today, the place is an ode to mid-century ideals as fueled by the booming American economy of that time, liberally dotted with European imports. Visitors can sit back in Bertoia chairs, feet propped on Breuer nesting tables and spend the afternoon gazing at Aspen Mountain. The mountain is roundly echoed in the curve of a Buckminster Fuller-esque half-dome perched ignominiously in the campus yard. With dangling limbs and suffering from general disrepair, the tetrahedron structure looks more like an abandoned jungle gym than an icon of a twentieth-century credo.
"There is no limit to what’s possible here."
During my stay at the Institute, Henry Kissinger was the keynote speaker for an American multinational real estate development firm. Although the firm handles some of the largest plots of open land remaining in capital cities throughout Europe, Asia, North and South America, no one attending their annual roundtable seemed to notice the furniture, the architecture or the campus plan. What did captivate the commercial real-estate tycoons to be were the wanderings of Kissinger’s mind. Like a Tibetan monk’s chant, Mr. Kissinger’s deep and gravely voice silenced his listeners. His every observation, personal, political or economic hung in the air like proverbial pearls, hovering in the space just above the developer’s heads and the ceiling of Bayer’s auditorium. Although attractive, the Aspen Siedlungen are not wildly remarkable. The guest quarters are comfortable and executed with clear-headed design sense. They exhibit front-to-back cross-ventilation systems, high ceilings, outstanding views and individual private patios. The primary color accent scheme on the exterior walls, which seems more "retro-form" than reasoned content, underscores that the building is a pastiche of Bauhaus clichés. The colors do not distinguish unit from unit nor building from building. They do not act as signage or markers or individualizing segregators in any way. They’re simply decoration.
The steel pipe support tube and projecting planes of the entrance canopies are straightforward cut and paste examples of neatly trimmed moments from Gropius’ Dessau student housing building. Gropius’ 1926 Principals of Bauhaus Production, may have emphasized "the limitation to characteristic, primary forms and colors, readily accessibly to everyone," yet the quasi-fervor of Bayer’s application of these forms to his units is precisely what promotes a "themed" reading of the project. One half expects the Institute’s staff to sport worker’s jackets and severely bobbed hairdos.
The Bauhaus in Dessau is a long way away from Aspen in time and space, and in economic and political reality. The questionable relationship between the two has been further stretched by the applied pragmatism of Bayer. He, like Gropius at Harvard, was, above all, a deft propagandist. With the aid of Frank Lloyd Wright-trained local architect Fritz Benedict and Paepcke’s generous payrolls, Bayer was happy to oblige his client with a stylized Bauhaus aesthetic suited to an upscale American business dream.
From 1950 onward the Goethe Festival for great books, its sister festival for Music, the International Design Conference and the Photography Conference all drew luminaries from the arts, literature, politics and business. Albert Schwietzer, Darius Milaud, Richard Neutra, Charles Eames, George Nelson, Buckminster Fuller, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange were all program participants in the Institute’s first two. Like the characters in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, who retreat to their valley of Atlantis, these real life players came together in the idyllic valley to advance in a spirit of optimism and faith, believing good design to be good business.
Rand’s novel, as a rambling capitalist epic, is unabashed in its pursuit to promote her objectivist philosophy. Politics and propaganda are housed in the bodies of characters and the tone of their conversations. Idealist and visionary entrepreneurs parade through the novel at will, unfettered by sentiment and society. Slowly and determinedly they are eventually sifted into a neat and rather self-satisfied little group who come and go in the hidden valley of Atlantis. While Rand’s protagonists withdraw from the society which they protest, Paepcke and Bayer to attempted to change the world through a marriage of commerce and culture. In September 1999, the players who’d rented the Institute wanted little more than for Mr. Kissinger to outline the political and economic land-mines that might hinder them in their quest for financial returns-design culture a cliché left over from another era.
"…here we trade in achievements not failure, values not needs."
Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand