Having joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill after World War Two at the age of 27, Walter Netsch was promoted to become a partner at the age of 31. Netsch entered the firm during what was arguably its defining era, when the reputation of Gordon Bunshaft and the image of a corporate-driven, teamwork-minded made SOM one of the most recognizable practices in the US. He was also, at the age of just 34, responsible for one of SOM's most recognizable projects of the decade, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and its striking geometric chapel.
To honor what would have been Netsch's 95th birthday, SOM recently republished an interview between Netsch and architecture theorist and writer Detlef Mertins, which had originally been published in 2001 in SOM Journal 1. In the following extract from this interview, Netsch discusses the story of how he developed the design, and what it was like to participate in one of America's most influential practices among a host of strong characters.
Detlef Mertins: The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has been recognized as one of the most distinguished projects of SOM and, more broadly, of modern architecture in America. The architects were selected in 1954, and the Academy was opened in 1958. The Chapel was completed in 1962. The project received the American Institute of Architects 25 Year Award in 1982. As a young man, how did you get to work on it, and what was your relationship with Gordon Bunshaft?
Walter Netsch: I was given the full responsibility for the design of the Academy. I was thirty-four years of age. Today you have to be fifty, although there are some younger architects coming up too. Of course, Gordon was the chief of design and came to the client meetings. I wanted him there. I’d find him with his squared paper moving things around for the campus, making refinements, but not major changes. He always credited me with solving the problem of how to build on the mesa. My dorm, which is two levels up and two levels down, really wowed him, because he didn’t think that way. So we got along fine.
The only time we didn’t get along was when he suggested the Italian mosaic. I had never been to Europe. But he went whenever he could and had seen the small mosaics from Murano. “That’s what we should use on these walls, Walter,” he said. “Oh,” I said, “fine.” So we got samples and I looked at them. Of course, we had a tradition of using red, blue, and yellow — the Bauhaus colors, which Gordon really stuck to. But I liked green also, so I brought along green. Gordon looked at me for a while and said, “Walter, if you use green I’ll never go to another meeting.” That was the easiest decision to make. I took off the green. I was raised at MIT, but he wasn’t. I was sufficiently younger that I didn’t have that full dedication to the Bauhaus that he had. He was really part of the revolution at the beginning, when America was modernizing. I was at the end of it.
DM: Did you run into any other problems on the Academy?
WN: The partners didn’t like my chapel on the hill. It was too medieval. And Saarinen said, “I don’t care what it looks like, but Walter, you’ve got to get it off that hill.” He’d speak Finnish, you know. He was born in America, but would always go into a foreign language, and the words would come out marvelously. He used his hands and said, “Bring it down into the life of the cadets.” Of course he was right, and it moved down, although very slowly. I often had a hard time because once we’d thought something through, we thought that it didn’t need to be reviewed again. There were times when it was proper to review, times when it was not. But Gordon would take the academic building, and he would suddenly start pushing elements around just for the sake of a Corbusian proportional system. I had a system too, based on the number seven. Three-and-a-half and seven. The whole Academy is based on the seven-foot module. I had lived in Japan and appreciated how the module of the tatami mat worked. But Americans are taller than they are, so I had to figure out a dimension that was appropriate. I picked three-and-a-half and seven. If you look at the Academy horizontally, vertically, within, everything is on that module… Oh, it was a job to make it work rationally, but we did it.
DM: If you were accustomed to working with a rectangular module, how did you come to use the tetrahedron for the chapel?
WN: That was Ken Nasland’s contribution, my engineer. We would have lunch at a beanery across the street and scribble while we talked. I was really worried because Gordon had sent me to Europe to look at Gothic architecture and Renaissance architecture. “Because you’re going to do another controversial building, Walter, and you’ve got to be able to say that you’ve seen Chartres and Notre Dame.” The trip took three weeks. I came back saying, “Gee, we don’t have stone masons today. We don’t have the love of labor through which something is added within the same vocabulary every decade. How can you achieve that effect, but do it all at once?” We made a little model of a folded plate, which was au courant. Take a piece of paper and bend it, and so forth. Origami. I started scribbling, drawing, trying to get a repetitive feature. Ken said, “What are you doing? Trying to draw a tetrahedron?” That’s the way he talked. Very straight forward. I said, “No. What’s a tetrahedron?” He drew me an equal tetrahedron. But I said that wouldn’t work. “Well, make one of your own,” he said. So I went home and got the tetrahedron to work. I worked as much at night as I did in the daytime. I got it to flip-flop. That was the great thing. I could flip-flop it, turn it upside down, inside out.
Then I made a model to show to Nat [Nathaniel A. Owings] and Gordon. It was of two tetrahedrons and was about three feet tall. Of course Bruce Graham saw it in the office and asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m working on the chapel.” Nothing else happened. He went to Bill Hartman and said, “Walt is crazy. He’s got an idea that’s just awful.” And then I took it to Nat who said, “Gee, that’s wonderful.” I took it to Gordon and he said, “You should pursue it.” Bruce went to Gordon and said, “Will you stop it?” Gordon said, “No, I won’t.” So there was a conflict within the firm as well as outside the firm.
Our little studio was quite excited about it. We tried to make an apse, but nothing worked to our satisfaction, so we didn’t do it. The idea grew of having three chapels in one. And I did traditional things like extend the shape of the stairway — a typical Renaissance trick. Then I did some studies on the glass in between. I waited for the Air Force to select an artist, but they told me they had no intention of selecting an artist, that I would have to do it. So I spent a year working with a team of four people who did research for me. Robinson Ward headed it. I said, “Robinson, how am I going to do all this glass? This mile of glass?”
DM: Were these people part of the studio?
DM: Dedicated to doing research?
WN: Yes, but I didn’t get any approval. I just did it. Just four guys who concentrated on research — research on glass, research on aluminum, research on whatever was needed. As long as it was for the good of the project no one complained. The glass strips were only a foot in width, so I couldn’t very well tell a story as Gothic stained glass had done. It had to simply work with colors. I went for dark colors at the beginning, symbolizing the creation of the world, shifting gradually to gold at the altar, for the revelation. Robinson came up with the technique. He said, “Walter, you just take the workers and tell them to hit the edges with a hammer.” The raised cushion would then fasten in different ways because the glass reacted differently to the way in which different people hit it. No one was trying to copy the old craft techniques of the Gothic cathedrals. “Just hit it. You’ve got a whole crate of them, hit them.” And it worked. It is faceted and it looks great when the sunlight shines on it.
DM: It seems that, already then, you were able to achieve a fair bit of autonomy within the firm.
WN: Yes, and at the same time I was really in favor of working as a group. First of all, I had to concede that I could do it. Somehow I could do it. So I really wasn’t worried about being in the group. That wasn’t really a problem. Secondly, we were working on large projects, so there was an individual project within the group that you could take responsibility for. And then you had Nat. The partners’ meetings were wonderful at that time. Gordon, of course, had established the name of the firm. All those project managers in New York, bless them — I mean, Fred Kraft, Ed Petrazzio, Bill Brown, and the rest of them — felt that Gordon took all the glory. No one got any credit in the magazines for any of the buildings until the Academy Chapel. Since half the partnership didn’t want it built, they were very happy to let me take all the credit for designing it. So I broke a taboo by accident.
DM: Before we talk more about how you broke away from the mold within SOM, what would you say you took from the more orthodox modernist approach?
WN: I’m really the last contact from the old days at SOM. Bruce came after me by enough years that he caught the Mies bug, and John Barney Rogers, a partner in the firm in the beginning, went to school in the Bauhaus in Germany under Mies, spoke German. He was my boss when I was the designer out in the San Francisco office. I lived in a little one room apartment with a view and a spring-down bed. When he went on vacation, he gave me the keys to his wonderful house in Pacific Heights, multileveled and looking out over Golden Gate Bridge. He had a library from Germany and chairs from Germany, tufted sofas and things. I’d take my vacation at the same time he did, and I’d go up there and see these elegant books. I was recently given an award at IIT, and I gave credit to Professor Anderson of MIT, to Gordon, and to John Barney Rogers. “Walter, this plan doesn’t quite read,” John would say because of his Miesian studies. It reads. You don’t have to look for it. A professional can immediately see how it works. So we all learned that part of modernism that has to do with reading. If you look at work by Le Corbusier or any of the other modernists, it always reads.
DM: Is that important to you still?
WN: Oh yes.
DM: Something you strive for in your work?
WN: Yes, even my complicated mathematical ones. I think you ought to have an image. In all my travels abroad I can’t think of any place where chaos has been the design element. I’ve been to Bilbao like everybody else and seen the Guggenheim by Gehry. I think it’s a marvelous building. I really do. But I can’t imagine six of them.
DM: You’ve also described yourself in contrast to Mies who had a big influence on SOM. Would you say a bit more about that?
WN: I never could be a Mies fan. I just do not have the same basic attitude. The search for an SOM look was Nat’s. Gordon was the closest to it at that time. I never thought of it to speak of. I didn’t go home and think at night of being different. I’d go home at night and think, what are the issues I needed to deal with and why. Working on the campus at the University of Illinois I’d ask, “Why do I have a high-rise building? Because of the program?” We were trying to get the humanities and the social sciences to speak to one another. The president gave me the program. He didn’t want all the departments in little buildings as they had at Urbana. So I devised a high-rise building that had two floors for each discipline with a seminar room in the middle and some offices. The elevators and the heating and ventilating system worked so that any two floors could operate independently on the weekend. We hoped there would be communication. We had a very modern, sixties attitude towards what an urban university should be. We thought it should provide skills and philosophies that would help resolve the urban problem. Of course it didn’t. But the buildings reflected that effort.