Walter Netsch

Remembering the Air Force Academy designer.

The name Walter Netsch isn't a household one, but it should be, especially in Colorado, because he's the man who designed the 1954-1964 Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, unquestionably among the most significant cycle of buildings in the country. At the time, Netsch was a partner at the prestigious Skidmore, Owings and Merrill firm.

One of the most interesting days I've ever spent was listening in rapt attention to Netsch talk about his work at the AFA while I, along with a busload of others, took a tour of the campus back in the 1990s. The event had been arranged by Craig Miller, who used to be the Denver Art Museum's curator of the Architecture, Design and Graphics and now holds a similar post at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Netsch talked about the fierce competition to gain the AFA commission, with every major architect of the day vying for it. He sketched out the ideas of the other great mid-century modernists, referring to them by their first names. He discussed Wally's (Wallace K. Harrison) proposals, Phillip's (Phillip Johnson) and Eero's (Eero Saarinen), and he mentioned Marcel's and Walt's (Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius). But he concluded that all of them, deep in their hearts and minds, knew there was only one architect who really deserved the commission, and I vividly recall Netsch literally bowing his head as he intoned the name "Mr. Wright" — referring to Frank Lloyd Wright, of course — and there was no first-name familiarity this time.

Certainly, the AFA Cadet Chapel (pictured) is Netsch's greatest claim to fame, and it anticipates the theatrical expressionism of a lot of recent architecture, such as the DAM's Hamilton Building, by Daniel Libeskind. But Netsch oversaw the whole campus. One of the many subtle attributes of his design is the way he used curving roads so that approaching visitors could glimpse postcard views of the complex set against the backdrop of the mountains.

Netsch died on June 15 at age 88, at his home in Chicago.

 
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