Architects: Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill
Location: El Paso, CO, USA
Architect: Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill
References: Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill. Also, TIME.com
Project Year: 1962
Photographs: Balthazar Korab, Stewarts Commercial Photography, Hedrich Blessing, SOM
From the architect. In 1954 Skidmore, Owings & Merrill were commissioned to design the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel. Located in El Paso Country, Colorado, just outside of Colorado Springs, the chapel is of the training center for officers of the United States Air Force which is a large self-contained community.
At an elevation of 6500 feet on the East of the Rocky Mountains, the 3,000 acre Academy also contains housing for 8,000 people, a supply center, a hospital, an airfield, and an academic complex rising up the slope of the site. This program is split on three levels due to the slope, with the Administration Building, the Social Center, and the Cadet Chapel on the uppermost level. These spaces are used by both cadets and visitors, which with the beautiful peaks of of the Chapel rising towards the sky, attracts more than a million a year.
"Designed by SOM as part of the Master Plan and design of the entire U.S. Air Force Academy campus, the Cadet Chapel was created as a single symbolic religious structure that accommodates the individuality of three major American faiths, thus requiring three distinct chapels."
In creating a monumental religious building, the design incorporated a monumental structure system. Seventeen rows of spires rise 150 feet high coming to seventeen points shooting towards the sky above, using repetition to enhance the powerful essence of each massive spire. These spires are used with a tubular steel frame of 100 identical tetrahedrons that make up the structure.
The tetrahedrons are each 75 feet long and weigh five tons. They are enclosed with aluminum panels and spaced a foot apart. The gaps in between these tetrahedrons are filled with colored glass, reflecting the light of the chapel.
The south facade is the entrance of the chapel, which begins with a granite stairway climbing to a one-story landing that leads to a band of gold anodized aluminum doors. Although a single building, the chapel houses three distinct main worship areas on two main levels, a Protestant Chapel, Catholic Chapel, and Jewish Chapel, along with two all-faiths rooms and two meeting rooms. The Protestant Chapel is located on the upper level and the Jewish and Catholic chapels and one all-faiths room are located beneath it. Another level below lies the larger all-faiths room and the meetings rooms.
The Protestant Chapel is the largest chapel and is designed to seat 1200 people. The nave is 92 feet tall at its highest peak, and measures 64x168 feet. The tetrahedrons form the walls of the chapel with stained glass windows in between them that progress from darker to lighter as they approach the altar, creating a beautifully lit majestic space.
The Catholic Chapel below the main level seats 500 people, and contains arches and stonework that suggest the architecture of the Romanesque Cathedral. The Jewish Chapel is distinguished with a round wooden screen that hides all of the structure, which is unlike what occurs in the Protestant Chapel above it.
On the 50th anniversary of the chapel, SOM was again commissioned to do a full restoration that would fix problems of water infiltration, repair any deteriorated components, and restore the chapel to its original condition. The date of this restoration has not yet been decided. The USAFA Cadet Chapel is an icon of modernism, a memorable icon of religious architecture ahead of its time, and in 2004 it was named a United States National Historic Landmark.