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How the Air Force Academy helped set the bar for modernist campus design

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More than half a century after it was built, the landmark still presents a daring vision for a modern university

Back-to-school time brings visions of quads ringed by brick buildings, and idyllic institutions basking in tradition. When most universities follow the blueprints set by traditional forebearers such as Harvard or Oxford, how do you create a modernist campus that still resonates with pride and symbolism, without lifting from the language of ivy-clad academia?

For the legendary Air Force Academy outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, it required a radical jump into midcentury design. Master planned in the ‘50s by a Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) led by the then 34-year-old Walter Netsch, the site high in the Rockies has become a National Landmark, due to its sharp layout and striking Cadet Chapel, a transcendent religious building that looks like a fleet of jet straining towards the heavens. Streamlined steel, strength, and fearlessness, all set against the backdrop of the Rockies and an azure mountain sky; what better symbol, and site, for a school training Air Force officers?

According to Roger Duffy, design partner at SOM, this masterpiece in institutional design almost didn’t happen. When the Air Force decided to create a new campus to train officers, it was still relatively young, having just become independent after being part of the Army in WWII. Perhaps owing to its youth, the generals and bureaucrats who would be approving the campus layout initially favored a more weighty, West Point-like aesthetic on the plateau chosen for the school, something heavy, with gravitas.

It took a powerful vision from Netsch and his team to win the commission and shift the bureaucracy away from their love of more traditional layout. The entire campus, in some ways as straight and narrow as a new recruit's buzz cut, was laid out following a unifying system, based on multiples of seven (inspired in part by Netsch’s love of Japanese design). The SOM team supposedly took care of every detail down to the silverware in the dining halls, and utilized state-of-the-art materials to create an orderly, streamlined educational experience.

The centerpiece is the Cadet Chapel, completed in 1962, which Duffy says stands as a spiritual symbol of the academy. While other buildings fit into the tightly aligned organizational system, drawing their visual power from organization and discipline, like cadets in marching formations, the chapel was allowed to stand out, and for good reason.

A towering structure formed from a row of 17 spires that sit on a series of steel framed tetrahedrons, the Chapel is a piece of art, a muscular, space age design that offers an update on shape and style of historic cathedrals. Netsch was sketching ideas one day and began folding the paper into origami, eventually hitting upon the geometric shapes as he bent and folded the paper.

The towering structure glows inside, due to strips of colored glass set between each steel frame. Wherever visitors are standing inside the buildingProtestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Buddhist chapels it’s a transcendent experience.

The otherworldly shape drew plenty of unfriendly fire during its debut. Some noted after its opening that "worshiping there was like going to church in a B-52," and Frank Lloyd Wright called it "a glassified box on stilts." But over time, its striking design has become legendary, marking the Air Force Academy as a modern learning institution and earning the Chapel the prestigious 25-Year-Award from the AIA. The Academy now sees more than a million visitors a year, making it the most popular man-made tourist attraction in the state.

Duffy and SOM returned to campus a few years ago, when the Air Force solicited designs for a new Center for Character & Leadership Development. Campus leaders and Air Force brass asked for a second building with personality, a visual landmark that could be a secular symbol for the campus.

Duffy and the SOM team used the symbolism, and mythology, of the Academy to create a simple, sculptural symbol. Their concept for the CCLD literally resolved—and resolves—around the North Star, or Polaris, which can be found on the patches of all the cadets. The star represents character and vision, and to reinforce those ideals, the SOM team designed a building with a 105-foot-tall skylight that points directly at the star. Working with an astronomer, they positioned the steel-and-glass tower so it would always align with what the school calls "its moral compass."

"It’s a physical counterpoint to the chapel," says Duffy. "It’s dynamic, sculptural, and respects the rhythms of the campus. We showed it to the senior generals on the Air Force team, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a client that let us just run with something like that. It was actually complete non-bureaucratic. It’s a pure idea, they recognized it, and just said, ‘draw it up.’"

What’s unique for the SOM team that worked on the CCLD is the idea of continuity, and the opportunity to contribute to such an iconic set of buildings. Netsch would do other large, institutional projects, such as the University of Illinois-Chicago, another bold Modernist design. But while UIC was visionary, it was also derided by many for being concrete and cold. His work for the Air Force stands as both an airy, precise, and powerful take on campus architecture, alongside the work Mies van der Rohe did at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Perhaps it’s only fitting that SOM’s campus addition decades later aimed skyward.