Marble Garden: Research shapes the reconstruction of a modernist iconic landscape


How do you reconstruct a deteriorating iconic modernist landscape sculpture with respect to the artist intent and the contemporary knowledge of materials, construction methods and site context without clear documentation from the artist?

Marble Garden, created in 1955 by Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer at the Aspen Institute campus, is widely considered one of the first examples of landscape as sculpture. The sculpture consists of a series of twenty-one upright marble slabs set on a 36 foot square marble aggregate concrete base, with an inset 12 foot square reflecting pool and fountain.

The landscape architect was engaged in 2019 to reconstruct the Marble Garden because its disintegrating condition had made it a liability within Aspen Institute campus. Structurally unsound marble pieces and water damage to the concrete base resulted in unsafe conditions for visitors. Initial research revealed that pieces of marble were moved or had been re-oriented. The landscape architect completed a definitive reconstruction employing rigorous historic research and construction evidence to establish Bayer’s aesthetic intent and the technical applications required for authentic reconstruction.


Reconstruction of a Modernist Iconic Landscape

Dilemma: How do you reconstruct a deteriorating iconic modernist landscape sculpture with respect to the artist intent and the contemporary knowledge of materials, construction methods and site context without clear documentation from the artist?

Sixty-four years after its original construction, the Marble Garden was in disrepair – the concrete aggregate base was cracked and crumbling after poor drainage and the freeze thaw cycle of the harsh Aspen winters, the marble pieces were weathering from overspray of the irrigation heads and growing biomatter that discolored their iconic white and grey veining, and the tallest pieces were leaning from poor structural support resulting in concern for the safety of visitors to this iconic cultural landscape.

The landscape architects were tasked with reconstructing the art piece without knowledge from the artist about the original materials, construction methods, or documentation of the built work. Reconstructing Herbert Bayer’s Marble Garden was an exercise in synthesizing artistic intent, material selection, and construction methods in the context of the modernist movement and its relationship to Aspen, Colorado.

Modernism in Aspen

Thesis: Use local art curator’s depth of historical knowledge and Herbert Bayer’s documentation of the sculpture to understand which components of the sculpture are historically significant.

Bayer became engaged in Aspen at the invitation of Walter Paepcke, a Chicago industrialist who visualized Aspen as an internationally-known center for thought leaders and the arts. Bayer proposed a “commons” anchored by two environmental art pieces: Marble Garden and Grass Mound. Constructed in 1954-55, the works opened the door for Bayer “to experiment with the transitional landscape work, land art or sculpture that would create a bridge between built environment and the extraordinary dominating landscape of Aspen.” Bayer’s contributions to the Institute’s master plan, architecture, and graphic design elements are responsible for Aspen’s reawakening as the center of the ‘Aspen Idea’, where mind, body, and spirit could coalesce in a stunning natural environment.

Research to Gain City Support and Funding

Thesis: Historic research findings will assure the client, the Historic Preservation Commission and patrons that reconstruction is based on traceable documentation and is authentic to the original artistic intent.

The team used extensive historic research to generate support and funding for the rebuilding effort. The project’s success required the support of the City of Aspen’s Historic Preservation Office which had designated the sculpture as a landmark. With the City’s approval for reconstruction, the team then moved to seek broader grants from both the State and supporters of the Institute, relying on research prepared by the design team, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a survey completed by the National Park Service, and archival materials from the Denver Art Museum. The City’s Historic Preservation Commission honored the completed project with the Historic Preservation Award in 2022.

A Cultural Landscape Rooted in Material and Place

Thesis: Herbert Bayer saw in landscape the possibility to combine pure forms and planer elements to create a new form of art, made from stone, water, grass, light and shadow. By engaging with material experts, we can understand both the material’s quality in the original work and therefore develop a reconstruction method that honors each as a material with unique qualities.

Bayer visited the nearby Yule marble quarry in Marble, Colorado, selecting 21 stones he would then arrange on a 36 x 36 foot concrete base incorporating a 12 x 12-foot square reflecting pool and water jet. The selected pieces were quarry remnants—“weathered found blocks” with rough edges and imperfections—cut in pure geometric shapes. Interviews with a former quality manager at the quarry confirm that the stones were rejected due to the rust-colored mineralization found within the blocks. The concrete base was seeded with chips of marble and then washed and scrubbed to expose the chips.

Capturing light and shadow in motion was integral to Bayer’s concept, and multiple studies revealing the constantly changing patterns were completed as part of the research. The landscape architect referred to those drawings during reconstruction to help illuminate the details inherent in the stone placement and to discover the compositional patterns intrinsic to the landscape art.

Research Reveals Transformation

Thesis: Bayer’s on-site arrangement of the marble pieces was part his creative process and not formalized in his documentation of the sculpture. Leverage historic photography, video, and conversations with artist’s descendants to determine the ‘period of significance’ to guide the placement of the marble pieces and the character of the fountain.

Relying on historic research the landscape architect was able to reassure the Institute that plans for reconstruction were based on traceable documentation and were authentic to the original artistic intent. Photo records reveal that a handful of marble blocks were moved and rotated over a period of several decades, a fact that presupposes both artistic experimentation and incremental maintenance and safety choices. Final placement for the reconstruction relied on a video wherein Bayer explains the piece, his dialogue representing satisfaction with the stone’s final placement.

The authenticity of the fountain’s single jet of water required additional investigation. In the reconstruction the same simple pump and electrical system (upgraded to code) is used to duplicate the fountain in the video. According to Bayer, the basin was filled with river rock collected nearby.  And, in a final interview, he describes his innate desire for the sculpture to invite interaction.

{de}Constructing + {re}Constructing an Icon

Thesis: While Bayer’s design was ultimately purposeful, elements of its construction were haphazard due to lack of available skill in the budding ski resort.  Using careful and curious deconstruction, the landscape architect and contractor will best understand the original construction methods.

While historically accurate design was the preeminent focus, the team expanded to include a general contractor, art curator, stone preservation specialist, and a variety of subcontractors to address structural and site planning concerns.

During the construction phase, the landscape architect worked closely with the contractor to investigate the materiality, source, methods, artistry and techniques of construction of the original sculpture in order to best translate the most critical qualities of the original into the reconstructed work.

Marble preservation included removal and cleaning during construction to extend longevity. The marble was covered with a residue of black crust and stain, a result of moisture from irrigation overspray and bio-staining.  A stone preservationist returned the stone to its original luster.

Foundation deterioration and marble staining and weathering occurred because of excessive moisture and poor site drainage. The landscape architect corrected the grading, drainage, and irrigation issues. Spray heads were replaced with a subsurface drip system to prevent future overspray, and lawn contouring redirects the surface and ground water run-off.

Foundation stabilization required a combination of increased footings, stainless steel pins, and thickened slabs.  A structural engineer resolved the issue of listing and leaning stones.

Jointing materials, grout, and waterproofing were specified to be non-corrosive and relied on material science to avoid chemical interaction with the marble pieces.

The Value of Research

This project demonstrates the value that a landscape architect can provide to stewarding a cultural landscape from a state of disrepair to reconstruction, while honoring artist intent. The landscape architect leveraged research conclusions of cultural value, historic significance, construction methods, material characteristics and modern technology to convene and lead a team of experts from conceptual design through fundraising and construction. Throughout the process, research was integral to guiding the team to an honorable reconstruction of this modernist icon.

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):