Rocky Mountain Modern


Robert Nauman, Ph.D.


Docomomo US/Colorado; University of Colorado Boulder


Regional Spotlight, Colorado
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Rocky Mountain Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country, without leaving your home. In honor of our newest Docomomo US chapter, this edition introduces you to some of Colorado's iconic modern sites.

Rocky Mountain Modern Part One
The U.S. Air Force Academy

by Robert Nauman

On July 23, 1954, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) was awarded the contract to design and construct the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The site itself was chosen from over 580 submissions by a Site Selection Committee that included Reserve Brigadier General Charles A. Lindberg, while over 300 architectural firms applied for the commission – one of the largest government construction projects of the Cold War era.  Constructed during Eisenhower’s presidency, the Air Force Academy was intended to complement the established military academies at West Point and Annapolis.(1)

Upon receiving the commission, SOM assigned 34-year-old Walter Netsch, who had graduated from MIT in 1943 and joined the firm in 1947, as the resident architect of the project.  Netsch had earlier worked on SOM projects that included the Manhattan Project town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, military installations in Okinawa, Japan, and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.  The Monterey project included a complex of buildings for 800 students, designed using a modernist architectural vocabulary.  Netsch was inspired not only by European modernism (especially the work of Gropius and Le Corbusier) during his education, but also by the work of Alvar Aalto and of course, working out of SOM’s Chicago office, by American “Chicago School” architects that included Jenney, Sullivan, and Wright.(2)

Working with Netsch on the Air Force Academy project was a design advisory board appointed by the Secretary of the Air Force that included Eero Saarinen, Wallace Harrison, and Welton Becket.  Emphasizing issues of economy, efficiency, and practicality, SOM adopted an International Style modernist vocabulary for the Academy design – a vocabulary they had employed earlier in the 1950’s with projects such as Lever House and the Manufacturers’ Trust Bank.(3)

For the initial exhibition of the design at the Colorado Spring Fine Arts Museum in May 1955, the firm hired renowned exhibition designed and former Bauhaus teacher Herbert Bayer to oversee the exhibition.   The extravagant exhibition, which cost $100,000 at the time, used photographic murals of Ansel Adams and William Garnett to form the backdrop for models of the various Academy areas, while Ezra Stoller was hired to take images of the models that were subsequently released to the press.  Drawing on the striking photographs of Colorado’s Rampart Range to link the modernist design to its site, the exhibition was intended to persuade the members of Congress in attendance to fund SOM’s design.(4)

Netsch’s design concept for the Academy was to locate the Cadet Area on Lehmann Mesa, evoking the Greek Acropolis both in terms of siting and also in terms of the abstracted classical design of the cadet buildings.(5) The residential communities, on the other hand, would be located in Pine Valley and Douglas Valley.  Netsch’s intent was that the residents of these areas would be forced to interact with the spectacular location beneath Pike’s Peak during their daily activities as they drove to other areas on the Academy site.   The Cadet area itself would be designed on a 7’ grid that would meet functional demands while interfacing with the site itself.  The grid design was inspired in abstract fashion by both Japanese tatami proportions, which Netsch had experienced when he worked in Japan, and by modernist modular design approaches employed by architects such as Le Corbusier.  There was also a more humanistic reason for choosing the 7’ grid.  Due to an extremely tight schedule to get the Academy open and functioning, Netsch needed to find an Academy-specific module that could be used as the governing grid for all Academy development.  The Air Force made a commitment never to have a class graduate from the Academy that was not from the permanent site, which meant that all facilities necessary to support the Class of 1959 had to be operational in 1958.  To find the ‘right’ module, Netsch asked himself what the most repetitive item was that they were going to design.  That was the dorm rooms.  The most important thing in the dorm room was the bed.  An American bed is approximately 7’ from the toe of the bed to the wall.  Hence the 7’ dimension.(6)  The geometric design would, as Netsch stated, “. . . contrast with nature’s more complex character.”

The initial “L” design of the Cadet Area buildings, which included an administrative building, cadet quarters, academic buildings, a dining hall, a social center, and a chapel, would allow nature to penetrate the site (a design decision that would later be compromised by the addition of Sijan Hall on the south side of the site in the 1960’s that transformed the original dynamic, open-sided plan into a more rigid rectangular plan).  The modernist design of the buildings differentiated themselves from the more traditional styles of architecture that had been employed at West Point and Annapolis, befitting the technological metaphors that were deemed appropriate to an air academy.

As a result of Saarinen’s recommendation for a landscape consultant, SOM hired Dan Kiley.  Kiley had graduated from Harvard and had worked on projects with Saarinen, including the Gateway Arch National Park project in St. Louis.  Known for his geometric and modernist approach to landscape design, Kiley’s design for the 700-foot-long Academy Air Garden, parallel to the academic building (Fairchild Hall), complemented the 7-foot module of the Cadet Area itself.  Comprised of a series of rectangular pools, some perpendicular to others, he compared the geometric pattern to a maze, in which “movement is ever continuous and elusive.”  Interestingly, Kiley’s designs for the cadet quarters courtyards were quite different from his geometric Air Garden.  They were designed as free-flowing, biomorphic forms, that would include “. . . lush plantings and small pools that would seem to flow underneath the dorms from one courtyard to the next.”  Unfortunately, they were never realized, and Kiley later stated that they may have been too much a departure from the overall geometric design of the Cadet Area (including his own Air Garden).(7)

In 1956, Walter Dorwin Teague Associates was hired to oversee interior design at the Academy.  Teague’s reputation as an industrial designer dated back to the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  His modernist approach to interior design emphasized, as he noted, “. . . the beauty of precision, of exact relationships, of rhythmical proportions.” The original budget for the 80 acres of furnishings and interior design work was over $15 million – the most expensive industrial design project of its time.(8)

One of the most unique buildings in the Cadet Area would be the dining hall (Mitchell Hall).  The program for that building was that it seat 3000 cadets at once in an open space unobstructed by internal supports. SOM’s Gertrude Lempp Kerbis would be assigned to design that structure. Kerbis was one of the few women involved with the Academy design, and that she had studied with Mies van der Rohe at IIT, so the dining hall is one of the few buildings at the academy that reflects a direct Miesian influence.  Upon graduation from IIT in 1954, Kerbis went to work for SOM’s Chicago office and was assigned to design the food service building on the Air Academy campus.

As she would later recall, “I had just come from working with Mies’s Convention Center project, alongside the team.  I was always fascinated by Mies’s ideas of a long-span structure.” The entire roof of the 308-foot long truss structure of the dining hall was prefabricated on the ground and on January 6, 1958, was lifted over 24 feet and placed onto 16 columns in 6 hours with the use of 24 hydraulic jacks.  Photographs of the truss structure were widely published and reinforced the technological aspects of the modernist structure (it was one of the earliest examples of the employment of computer technology to aid with structural solutions). Unfortunately, as a female architect, Kerbis has rarely been acknowledged for her work at the academy, and was not even allowed on the site the day the roof was raised.(9)

It would, however, be the Cadet Chapel that would serve as both a lightning rod for criticism and also as the iconic structure at the Air Force Academy.  From the first design exhibition in May 1955, the chapel had been an object of concern.  The fact that it would be the centerpiece of the Cadet Area, elevated on the Court of Honor, was never disputed.  The 1950’s was the decade during which the phrase “under God” was inserted into the United States pledge of allegiance, and the official motto of the country, “In God We Trust,” was adopted.

The contentious issue was what form the chapel would take.  For SOM’s critics, it would have to assume an appropriately monumental form, drawing on past precedence while also evoking technological metaphors that would be appropriate for an air academy, and a modernist abstract vocabulary.  Netsch would eventually resolve all of those issues.  Netsch’s sabbatical to Europe to gain inspiration for the chapel design resulted in four cathedrals that influenced the design:  Chartres (specifically the flying buttresses), Ste.-Chapelle (the quality of light), Notre Dame Paris (the flying buttresses and its height of 150’ which the Cadet Chapel matches), and the Basilica of St. Francis Assisi.  Inspired by the two-level design of Ste.-Chapelle in Paris, he designed a multi-denominational chapel, with an upper-level space for Protestant worship, and separate Catholic and Jewish chapels in the lower level.  The exterior was comprised of 17 spires, clad in aluminum and employing a tetrahedron structural system.  Due to the controversy that arose over its design, the chapel was not completed until the summer of 1963, and was finally dedicated on September 22, 1963.

It would not be until 2004, 50 years after Eisenhower had signed Public Law 325, a bill that provided for the establishment of a United States Air Force Academy, that the Cadet Area at the Academy would be designated a National Historic Landmark District.  The chapel, awarded the AIA’s National 25 Year Award in 1996, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2004, an event celebrated with the release of a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp of the chapel.

Currently, Kiley’s Air Garden is undergoing extensive renovation.  Shut down and filled in during the 1970’s, the $5 million project will be completed in the next year. Meanwhile, Netsch’s Cadet Chapel is in the midst of a multi-year closure to restore it to its original grandeur. That $158 million process, overseen by Air Force Academy Campus Architect Duane Boyle, will entail removing all of the stained glass and aluminum panels on the chapel to install a network of rain gutters that Netsch had originally intended to prevent water leaks, but were omitted in the original construction due to budgetary restraints. The hope is that the restoration will be completed in 2024.(11)

Continuing to serve as a functioning university campus, the Academy remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colorado, with hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, underscoring the timeless appeal that SOM and the people involved in its design had originally intended. 


(1) For architectural discussions of the United States Air Force Academy, see R. Bruegmann (ed.), Modernism at Mid-Century: The United States Air Force Academy, Chicago, 1994, and R. Nauman, On the Wings of Modernism: The United States Air Force Academy, Urbana, 2004.

(2) For Netsch’s background and work at the Academy, see Nauman, “A Timely Design: Walter Netsch and the United States Air Force Academy,” in Walter A. Netsch, FAIA: A Critical Appreciation and Sourcebook, Evanston, 2008.

(3) For a discussion of the architectural consultants for the Academy design, see S. Olson, “The Architectural Consultants,” in Modernism at Mid-Century, pp. 31-32, and Nauman, On the Wings of Modernism, pp. 32-33. For a discussion of SOM’s previous work, see Olson, “Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: The Project Team” in Modernism at Mid-Century, pp. 27-28, and Nauman, On the Wings of Modernism, pp, 25-27.

(4) For a discussion of the 1955 exhibition, see Nauman, On the Wings of Modernism, pp, 36-67.

(5) For Netsch’s approach to the Academy design, see K. Schaffer, “Creating a National Monument: Planning and Designing the Academy,” in Modernism at Mid-Century, pp. 37-41, and Nauman, “Walter A. Netsch, FAIA,” pp. 52-55.

(6) Interview with Academy Architect Duane Boyle, August 13, 2020.

(7) For Kiley’s background and work at the Academy, see J. Johnson, “Man as Nature,” in Modernism at Mid-Century, pp. 110-116.

(8) For Teague’s background and work at the Academy, see Olson, “A Comprehensive Design Vision,” in Modernism at Mid-Century, pp. 139-147, and Nauman, On the Wings of Modernism, pp, 93-94.

(9) For Kerbis’s background and work at the Academy, see Nauman “The Relevance of Kerbis’s Dining Hall Design at the United States Air Force Academy,” in L’architrave, le plancher, la plate-forme, Lausaunne, 2012, and Olson, “Raising the Roof,” in Modernism at Mid-Century, pp. 74-75.

(10) For a discussion of the Academy Chapel design, see Nauman, On the Wings of Modernism, pp, 108-133. R. Bruegmann also provides a background to both the Academy design as a whole and the design and controversy over the Chapel design in “Military Culture, Architectural Culture, Popular Culture,” in Modernism at Mid-Century, pp. 79-97.

(11) For ongoing preservation and restoration issues at the Academy, see Nauman, “The United States Air Force Academy,” in Future/Anterior, v.1, no. 2, Fall 2004. This information was updated in an interview with Academy Architect Duane Boyle, August 13, 2020


Bruegmann, Robert, ed., Modernism at Mid-Century: The Architecture of the United States Air Force Academy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Nauman, Robert, “A Timely Design: Walter Netsch and the United States Air Force Academy,” in Walter A. Netsch, FAIA: A Critical Appreciation and Sourcebook, Clement, Russell, ed. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 20008.

Nauman, Robert, On the Wings Of Modernism: The United States Air Force Academy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Nauman, Robert, “The Relevance of Kerbis’s Dining Hall Design at the United States Air Force Academy,” in L’architrave, le plancher, la plate-forme, Roberto Gargiani, ed. Lausanne: Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes, 2012.

About the Author

Robert Nauman teaches architectural history at the University of Colorado Boulder and has published extensively on the topic of the Air Force Academy. His book On the Wings of Modernism: the United States Air Force Academy was nominated for the Society of Architectural Historians Alice Davis Hitchcock Award. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Society of Architectural Historians, and is currently serving on the Board of Directors of both Docomomo US and Docomomo Colorado. He was recently appointed to the Colorado Historic Preservation Review Board. 

Rocky Mountain Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHouston and Las Vegas. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Rocky Mountain Modern Part Two
Herbert Bayer and the Aspen Institute