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OBITUARIES : Walter A. Netsch Jr., 1920 - 2008

Architect rejected 1950s orthodoxy for radical designs

June 18, 2008|From Times Wire Services

Walter A. Netsch Jr., a prominent Chicago architect who designed the Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., has died. He was 88.

Netsch died of pneumonia Sunday at his Chicago home, said his wife, Dawn Clark Netsch.

Walter Netsch spent nearly all his architectural career in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where he concentrated on institutional projects, including the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago

Many of Netsch's geometrically complex buildings departed from the glass-box orthodoxy of the International Style that had been championed by such earlier 20th century figures as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Many were vilified when they were built and some were eventually demolished.

But many current scholars maintain that Netsch's work represents a significant break from the style of the 1950s and '60s and anticipates the unorthodox, computer-generated shapes of such contemporary architects as Frank Gehry.

"He was one of those creative figures of the 1960s who broke the mold and paved the way for a younger generation to follow," John Zukowsky, former chief architecture curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune.

When Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was commissioned in 1960 to design the Air Force Academy, Netsch first demonstrated that he would not dogmatically follow the boxy International Style embraced by most architects at the time, including those in his own firm.

His soaring, spiky, tetrahedral academy chapel was a church that looked like a church and signaled Netsch as the maverick he would remain until his death.

Initially labeled a temple to the military-industrial complex, the chapel eventually became highly regarded. In 1995, the American Institute of Architects gave it the Twenty-Five Year Award, which is conferred annually to a 25- to 35-year-old project of enduring significance.

Netsch's first Chicago structure was the 19-story Inland Steel Building at 30 W. Monroe St. Completed in 1958, it is now an official Chicago landmark. Gehry, who owns a share in it, has said that its stainless steel exterior helped inspire some of his own sculptural, metal-covered structures, such as Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

Other prominent Netsch structures in the Chicago area include the main library and the Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center at Northwestern University in Evanston, Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago and the east wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Born in Chicago in 1920, Netsch received a bachelor's degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1943 and served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He took early retirement from his Skidmore, Owings & Merrill partnership in 1979 but remained a consultant to the firm until 1981.

He is survived by his wife, a former Illinois comptroller who was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1994.

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