Walter Netsch, 1920-2008

Walter Netsch, 1920-2008


Those who were fortunate enough to visit Walter Netsch in his Chicago house in Old Town will never forget the moment; it was such a simple design, but unlike any other. A large open cube measuring exactly 60 feet by 60 feet by 60 feet, the Netsch residence became a destination in its own right; it garnered so many visits, in fact, that Walter once estimated the number to be close to 10,000. Divided into three open levels connected by a half-spiral stairway at the edge, his office was on the lower level, followed by the entry and lounge, then by an upper sleeping area and kitchen at the third level.

All of that spatial drama was almost upstaged by one of the better private contemporary art collections in Chicago, which covered a good portion of the house’s extensive wall space. There, one might see a Lichtenstein, or a Robert Indiana, or, if you looked out the window to the roof garden over the garage, there was a George Rickey. Collecting art was not a coincidental sideshow for Walter, who had originally wanted to become an artist. His father banished that idea quickly, suggesting he would be better off if he could make a living. Walter went to MIT and studied architecture, and later landed at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where he became one of its chief designers.

The pleasures of visiting Walter Netsch at home weren’t limited to the architecture, however. A quintessential Renaissance Man, he was knowledgeable on any number of subjects, whether  design, planning, music, or politics. As for the latter, he admitted that his interest in political affairs came after his marriage to his lawyer wife, Dawn Clark Netsch, who taught at Northwestern University and held high offices in the State of Illinois as a member of the Democratic Party. Still very much active in politics, the Netsches recently let the Obama Campaign use Walter’s studio on Goethe Street as a local headquarters once the Illinois primary was over.

During his years at SOM’s office in Chicago, competition between studios within the firm was the order of the day. Walter demanded a lot from young architects and anticipated their undivided commitment, and moving between studios within the SOM office was almost unheard of. Sometimes Walter would take his studio on visits to museums, which meant that many were expected to make up for that by staying over in the evening. One such architect remarked that the studio breathed a sigh of relief when Walter married Dawn, hoping for a break in the intense schedule. Then came the bad news: She was going to the capital, Springfield, on an appointment, and he would remain.

During those years at SOM, Netsch designed all of the major university libraries in Chicago; but his most famous building is still the Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs, whose tetrahedron spires attract over 300,000 visitors each year. Some believe this project gave him the opportunity to put his personal theories about geometry into practice, though Walter himself would be the last to deny the influences which came from traveling in Europe. Although clad in futuristic garb, the chapel’s underlying order is unmistakably Gothic.

Like any architect, Walter complained when clients made modifications he didn’t approve of to his projects, the most devasting of which was the removal of the elevated walkways at the Circle Campus at the University of Illinois in Chicago. But he was encouraged when the Air Force Academy hired a full-time architect to oversee the maintenance and preservation of their buildings, albeit after a lot of suspect changes had already taken place. Although Walter was certainly known for his strong opinions—especially when he was a juror—he didn’t shy away from collaboration, and lauded the contributions of Eero Saarinen during the planning of the Air Force Academy, and worked with Isamu Noguchi on the Chicago Art Institute.

After leaving SOM, Walter continued to practice, designing the much-published Miami University (Ohio) museum, as well as the Fort Wayne Art Museum. In his later years, Walter continued to enter competitions. On the occasion of a school competition in Chicago, the design for which he sketched from his hospital bed, I informed him (as a non-juror observer) that he had made the final round. Although knowing he would probably not win, he remarked that it was all well worth it. For anyone who knew Walter Netsch, who died at his home on June 15 at the age of 88, we can all say that it was well worth it.