The Architect Explorer
Colorado architect Larry Yaw, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, has nudged modernism forward in Aspen and beyond. An intimate conversation with his journalist daughter...
Sitting on a mossy rock in a tall stand of aspens next to my dad, a couple of hours into trying to find our way from Willow Lake back to the Maroon Bells parking lot, I started gnawing on my mom’s teriyaki beef jerky from my backpack. We had left the trail long ago, and I was convinced we were lost. I must have been about eight years old at the time.
“We’re not lost, we’re exploring,” is probably how my dad, architect Larry Yaw, responded—a claim that would echo through my young years as I followed him through the backcountry of the Elk Mountains in Colorado, across Kashmir in India, and through The Wind Rivers, The French Alps, New Zealand, and beyond, along with my mom and three siblings.
We got lost a lot, sort of on purpose, in the mountains. Yet never once did I see my dad flinch in these moments. Getting lost in the woods, in the place he calls his chapel, was merely another form of sublime and creative adventurism for him—much like his career as an architect and artist—and it fed his cowboy-style soul. I’d watch as he’d get this shrewd sparkle of excitement in his voice as he strategized on which ridge to follow, or which drainage would lead us back to the tent, all the while managing his family on the verge of the fearful discovery that our dad, really, had no idea where we were. Yet, now, as I bring my own young family into the woods to play and discover, I realize that my dad’s resourceful and poetic confidence that has intrigued me over the years has penetrated my own psyche deeply, and I strive to encourage that sensibility to seep into my kids’ sense of adventure. And, just as he did for our family, my dad has left an indelible impression on the contemporary design ethos of the Roaring Fork Valley, as well as countless alpine communities across the Mountain West.
“Getting lost in the woods, in the place he calls his chapel, was merely another form of sublime and creative adventurism for him—much like his career as an architect and artist—and it fed his cowboy-style soul.”
Since 1970, his iconic passion has manifested in his projects as he nudged modernism forward in Aspen and beyond, with an exceptional roster of clients and creative business partners as his co-conspirators; and he propelled them towards the outer edges of what’s possible. If I were to guess, his clients might sum up his character with a story similar to mine, yet the chapel would be his drafting table, and the map would be the radical ideas he has hand-sketched on camel-colored paper for the artfully crafted architecture he has envisioned. Sure, during his forty-six years creating innovative designs in the mountains, his aesthetic has shifted and grown, but his passion for the rawness of the backcountry, and for the purity of connecting people to place and to nature has remained firmly in tact.
“Since 1970, his iconic passion has manifested in his projects as he nudged modernism forward in Aspen and beyond.”
As his youngest daughter, I knew all of this, sort of, but it wasn’t until we had this conversation that I truly understood the gravity of how particular vignettes throughout his life have justified, and even come to imprint themselves, on his design, his spirituality, and his personal approach of getting lost—before finding a path.
Herein lies our recent sit-down at the kitchen table, an intimate chat between an architect and his daughter:
LYR How has living in the mountains influenced your design?
LY I’m the guy who can’t stop myself from climbing up and looking to see what’s on the other side of the ridge, or from going up to the end of a valley to see what’s there. If there’s some association with exploring, and innovating beyond the expected, I’m in. Therefore, my lifestyle has been defined by, and inspired by, active outdoor living, and attached to that is the adventure of it. Adventure is a part of everything I love to do—physical, intellectual, and spiritual adventure. And, therefore, I’ve begun to regard the artform of architecture as a basecamp for this; a basecamp that is sustainable, economic in scale, but very much connected to nature as that is so much a part of the adventure of being alive and in the now, wherever here is.
“Adventure is a part of everything I love to do ... I’ve begun to regard architecture, or habitation anyway, as a basecamp for this.”
LYR Who influenced you as an architect?
LY First, the biggest influencers have been great clients of a contemporary persuasion, who relish the process of exploration and testing. There are other architects also, such as Romaldo Giurgola (“Aldo”), The Dean of Columbia School of Architecture, where I completed my Master’s studies. He would sit down and talk in these simplistic terms about the choreography that you create architecture through; the path you take and how that enriches you, and enriches the purposes of design. Louis Kahn—his work and writings inspired me.
And, the firm Morphosis Architects creates fabulous, courageous, contemporary, sculptural, and adventuresome architecture. As you traverse their spaces, you’re taken through them with this marvelous, layered, spatial experience that therefore inspires the choreography of getting from here to there.
LYR What’s your experience of being a modern architect in the Roaring Fork Valley, where opulent traditional mountain architecture is so dominant?
LY There’s opulence of thought and opulence of material—and those are two different things. Even though I’ve been involved with opulence, I design around the expectation that you don’t let the house own you. And, now, there is a cultural shift toward an awareness that we have to be stewards of the land, and be mindful of not writing out a big order for the resources. That shift has brought clients who want thoughtfully crafted, understated, simple in form, and more directly responsive design.
"There’s opulence of thought and opulence of material—and those are two different things."
Also, a townscape is really a library of cultural expressions over time. Given that historic perspective, a log cabin is part of the miner’s time. Hopefully, what I do is an expression of my times and this culture, and doesn’t grab a crutch out of architecture’s past. Because the work of my firm significantly influenced the evolving character of architecture in the New West, I was elevated to the prestigious College of Fellows (FAIA) by the American Institute of Architecture. Our working mantra of design is that of “place-making” where architecture and nature are seamlessly integrated to the betterment of both.
“A townscape is really a library of culture preferences over time. Given that historic perspective, a log cabin is part of the miner’s time.”
LYR You were raised in rural Montana. What did that upbringing impart to you?
LY Growing up in Montana, I really experienced these rural ranch and farm compounds that were formed over generations. They were always designed by the simplest means, in simple forms, and they seemed to sit respectfully on the earth. When I started studying these things, I discovered that they were really forms that described contemporary architecture in their simplicity. They were formed in protective surrounds, and were organized around working proximities, yet there was always a place for enrichment, like a little garden near the front porch. Then, these compounds grew organically—out of inelegant purpose, and rural rationality. I didn’t appreciate it then, but as I studied architecture, I started pulling out of my experiential self, and those things all matched up—that is contemporary architecture. It did not tread heavily on the land; it embodied economy of means; it had simple forms and echoed its context—all things that are generationally taught or experientially taught. They solved problems there, out of their own devices and their own means.
LYR How has design carried into, and impacted, other areas of your life?
LY It has opened my eyes. When I travel, I see different things; I wonder about them; I take them in. And, what I’ve learned is that I like evocative things. Evocative means you hate it or you love it but it nevertheless stirs emotion in you, and takes the lethargy out of your mind. And, that’s true in architecture. The creative process and everything associated with it; the people you work with and the collaborations—they fuel my worthwhileness and my sense of adventure.
“I like evocative things…. You hate it or you love it but it stirs something in you, and takes the lethargy out of your mind.”
LYR Tell me about the Blackfeet Indians, a tribe you became close to when you were young, and their impact on you, your design, and your art.
LY When I was twelve years old, I went to Browning, Montana, in the middle of the Blackfeet reservation, and there sat this gorgeous little Indian girl. She was about my age, dressed in a traditional beaded, white doeskin dress, and I was enchanted. Her name was Virginia Home Gun. That enchantment turned into a friendship with her. It turns out that her father was the chief of the Blackfeet Tribal Council. Over time, through traditional ancient ceremony, they made me an honorary member. That really stirred me. It continued beyond that, and I started reading and studying about the rituals and legends that were the spiritual glue of their life. The Blackfeet regarded themselves as a creature of the earth, and they understood the balance of their needs with earth phenomena. They would give thanks to the buffalo, and honor a slain enemy for valor. For me, it went from the idealistic warrior image when I was young, to understanding their spiritual nourishment that kept them who they are. That translated to me later on into a series of paintings that I call “Once Proud.” That’s my way at this point in life of telling the story of westward movement and how it maimed the spirit and freedoms of our native inhabitants of this place. This made us feel sort of culturally guilty and I was inspired to tell that story.
LYR What is the status of modern architecture in the Roaring Fork Valley, and what role did you play in getting modern design where it is today?
LY Aspen has always been a place that embraced aesthetic adventurism, or tolerated it anyway, and has always fostered intellectual and artistic courage. My firm, my partners, a highly talented thirty-some staff, and our clients have allowed us to be one of the forerunners of the movement here. Personally, I haven’t pushed modernism [in the valley] for recognition; we have had clients and circumstances that permitted that kind of solution and character. But within my firm, I’m known for pushing beyond the expected, and going to a higher level of art form and different level of expression; questioning, pushing, improvising, and going beyond even what clients want. Straight competency in architecture is a mid-level solution—I advocate for artfully courageous and innovative solutions that are bigger than the problem.
LYR Who are the people who want modern architecture in the mountains? What makes them different from the “typical” client who wants that enormous heavy log mansion that says, “I have a lot of money, and I live in Aspen?”
LY Some people are here because it is a new bar on their reputation epaulette. The people who I gravitate towards, or who gravitate towards our firm, are here for reasons I’ve sorted out—for the adventure, the backcountry, and things that support our minds, bodies, and spirits. These are all truly good characterizations of our lives, and our personal culture. To put it into context, I’m not going to design three little sitting areas around the master bedroom so you can sit inside all day. You get out of bed, you have breakfast, and you go ski; you get out there.
In that, a question I always ask is: Is architecture derived of context, or does architecture create context? The answer is both depending on where you are, but it's a question I ask of it because its one of the beginning points that I use to align my sensibilities with those of a client or a place.
“Is architecture derived of context, or does architecture create context?”
LYR You get lost on purpose, in a way, right? How has this personal quality informed your design sensibility?
LY Freud said that problems couldn’t be solved by a consciousness that created them. In other words, you cannot solve problems where there are too many givens; otherwise you just spin inside the givens. Part of the creative process is being lost, disoriented; you are seeking an answer in a way. Therefore, I never feel lost, I just feel like I entered another chapel as it engages another form of creativity, curiosity, and adventure in me. Being lost is inspiring too—when I was really young, out hiking and going to crazy places I’d never been, I marveled at earth forms, the magic to them, what got them there. As I went on, I studied geomorphology, and it all boiled down to tectonics of eruption, erosion, accumulation, weather, and all of nature’s will upon those things. It’s really compelling, and asks compelling questions, and I found some answers that I’ve portrayed in my painting.
“Part of the creative process is being lost, disoriented; you are seeking an answer in a way. Therefore, I never feel lost.”
Nature can also help you appreciate your existence, be a stimulus for enlightenment, and fuel lifelong curiosities. As architects, we must embrace that kind of creativity and spirituality, the kind that enhances who we are, so as to create well being.
And, Lindsay, I can find my way back from anywhere.
A founding partner of Cottle Carr Yaw Architects, Larry Yaw has designed many of the firm’s award-winning projects—from resort and community design to corporate buildings and private mountain homes. In 1993, Yaw was named to the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows, the highest award given to the profession’s most respected architects. His projects are regularly published in architectural books and national design magazines.
Yaw received his Master’s Degrees in both Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University and has since been a lecturer and design critic at several western universities. Believing in the importance of civic involvement, Yaw is also a founding board member of the Aspen Art Museum.