A temple to ethics at the United States Air Force Academy defaces a triumphantly modernist campus by SOM
Published in: Architectural Record
January 2016

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is one of Modernism’s triumphs — perhaps the most successful campus ever created as a single International Style work. Low, rectilinear buildings, designed by longtime SOM partner Walter Netsch half a century ago, flank a terrazzo-and-concrete podium designed for new cadets to march across in unison. The cadets’ famous right-angle turns are a way of saying that “at the Academy, we don’t cut corners,” says Thomas J. Berry Jr., deputy director of the school’s Center for Leadership and Character Development (CCLD).

But the Academy’s best-known building largely avoids right angles. It is the accordion-folded aluminum chapel, Netsch’s masterpiece, with its 17 peaks at once suggesting trees, mountains and rockets. Whichever association you prefer, the building, completed in 1963, is a star—the focal point and fulcrum of SOM’s American acropolis.

So it comes as a shock to discover that the fabled campus, its central area a national historic landmark since 2004, now has a second, angled tower reaching to the sky. The 105-foot-tall structure–with almost 1,000 panes of fritted glass mounted on sculpted steel-plate trusses–is the glass roof of Polaris Hall, the new home of the CCLD. Oriented 39 degrees from vertical (it points toward Polaris, which according to Academy tradition represents honor), it resembles the tail of a very large airplane. Could it be a memorial to fallen airmen, of which there are several on the Academy campus?

But if its symbolism is confusing, the tower’s presence is unavoidable. Though 45 feet shorter than Netsch’s chapel, it is plenty tall enough to challenge the earlier building’s eminence. Oddly, a jury that included prominent architects chose the New York scheme over proposals for shorter, less attention-getting, buildings.

The center’s function is to train cadets to make ethical choices. “How do you take an 18-year-old citizen and turn him into a 22-year-old lieutenant?” says Berry, a retired colonel, of its mission. But the building serves other needs as well. Its boosters, mainly prominent alumni, were looking to make a statement about moral leadership in the wake of cheating and sexual harassment scandals that had tarnished the Academy. And some may have been looking to support secular values, after years in which the Academy was found to be heavily influenced by evangelical Christian groups.

The alumni boosters held the purse strings. To supplement bare-bones government funding, about one-third of the building’s $43 million cost had to be raised privately. And at meetings with potential donors, Berry recalls, they asked for a new icon.

Joseph Saldibar, an officer of History Colorado, the state historic preservation office, agrees. “The driving force was the alumni,” he says. At meetings Saldibar attended, alumni representatives would say that “we were really embarrassed by all these cheating scandals that took place. We want this to be prominent, to be the centerpiece of the academy.” Not coincidentally, the building will be open to tourists, and it may be particularly popular when Netsch’s chapel is closed for renovations (scheduled to begin in 2018). Tourism has been a revenue generator for the Academy, says Duane Boyle, the campus architect and deputy director of facilities management. But the number of visitors dropped off after 9/11, when security was tightened. The new tower, Berry and others at the Academy hope, will be a draw.

Frederick Malmstrom, a psychologist based in Colorado Springs, says the building is more about impressing donors and tourists than about addressing problems. Malmstrom, who from 1999 to 2013 was a visiting scholar at the CCLD, says that, in anonymous surveys, the percentage of graduates who said they committed honor violations while cadets more than doubled from the class of 1959 to the class of 2010, from 29 percent to 66 percent. (According to Berry, the data can’t be verified because when Malmstrom “resigned from his position in the Center he took all the research data with him.”)

What is clear is that the Academy can use some good public relations. In 2005, Americans United for Separation of Church and State found that Christian officers and staff members had pressured cadets of other faiths to convert; later an Air Force investigative panel found that officers and faculty members of the academy periodically used their positions to promote their Christian beliefs and failed to accommodate the religious needs of non-Christian cadets. In response, the Pentagon issued rules to combat religious intolerance and discrimination. And in 2009, Academy officials told the New York Times that they were making “significant strides to enforce a position of official neutrality on religion.”

The CCLD, not officially part of that process, can only help. But for years, the center had to borrow space from other departments and even rent hotel ballrooms in downtown Colorado Springs. In 2008, John R. Regni, then the Academy’s superintendent, gave the go-ahead for the center’s new building. It would be the first addition to the so-called “cadet area” (the central part of Netsch’s campus) in more than 30 years.

That was a red flag for Boyle, who grew up in Colorado Springs and says exposure to the Academy is what made him want to be an architect. During more than 30 years on the job, Boyle had become “really good friends” with Netsch, who died in 2008, speaking to him by phone several times a week. Initially, Boyle says, he was “concerned about the implications of placing a new element in the cadet area. I did not oppose it, but I knew it had to be handled carefully,” he says. “It is really a balancing act.” He adds that in the 1990s, when the Academy was thinking of building a second chapel, Netsch provided sketches for a triangulated tower, meaning, he says, that the architect wasn’t opposed to altering the campus skyline.

Regni and Boyle agreed that SOM should design the new building, given that the firm had an existing contract with the Academy for facility planning, as well as a permanent place in Academy lore. (Says the firm’s associate director Mark Leininger, “Every cadet knows about SOM. You go out there and you feel like a rock star.”) But Boyle also wanted the benefits of a design competition. The solution, he decided, was to let SOM’s three largest offices–in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco–compete for the job. “We weren’t sure they would go for that,” said Boyle. But Leininger, his contact at the firm, asked around, and the offices agreed to compete. Indeed, “each jumped at the opportunity to continue SOM and Walter’s work at the Academy,” Regni wrote in a report. (The three offices were paid for their work with donated funds.) If there was resentment in the Chicago office, which might have felt it deserved the commission, no one at SOM is saying.

For the competition, the Academy developed a program: The building’s main features would be a “forum” (a flexible space where groups could meet in various configurations); the Honor Board Room, where students accused of honor-code violations would be tried by their fellow cadets; and a variety of seminar and “break-out” spaces. Boyle brought in Marilyn Jordan Taylor, a former SOM partner, now the architecture dean at the University of Pennsylvania, and Philip Enquist, a current SOM partner, to visit the Academy and help select an appropriate site. They designated a rectangle of about 100,000 square feet, southwest of the chapel, as buildable, allowing the three competitors a good amount of latitude. (The finished building is 46,000 square feet.) Boyle asked the offices not to speak with each other, to ensure that he was really getting three different ideas.

Different they were. Chicago proposed a round building with a cable-stayed glass facade; San Francisco’s entry was orthogonal, with seminar rooms beneath the podium, facing lightwells. As for height, New York’s proposed building was 20 feet taller than Chicago’s and 28 feet taller than San Francisco’s. Regni loved what New York partner-in-charge Roger Duffy (working with SOM senior designer Scott Duncan) had come up with. He wrote in a 2012 report: “Roger and his team designed what he called the ‘moral compass,’ for lack of a better description, a gun-like barrel pointing 39 degrees to the Polaris Star . . . and permitting the actual beams of light from the Polaris Star to shine down through the Moral Compass, focusing on the spot a cadet would be standing as he or she was being judged in the Honor Board room. A chill went down my spine,” Regni continued. “Roger had just hit a grand slam.” But he asked the architect to address two problems. First, “how to isolate the Moral Compass so it did not become a ski jump for cadets.” Second, “I asked him to examine the shape and structure of the Moral Compass so a twisted mind would not construe it as a phallic symbol.”

But Regni didn’t get to select Duffy’s design. “It was important that the process have credibility inside and outside government,” Boyle says. So he assembled a jury that included Kent Kleinman, dean of the architecture school at Cornell University, and Joan Ockman, a Cooper Union professor. The jury chose the New York proposal, Boyle says, after “a good deal of debate.” None of the three SOM offices, however, had seen Netsch’s concept drawings for the unbuilt triangulated tower, says Boyle.

Duffy (with senior designer Frank Mahan, also of SOM’s New York office) worked to refine the fritted glass, which is increasingly opaque the closer it gets to the ground, and the interior trusses, which narrow as they ascend. To avoid having to install light fixtures in the atrium, they designed an assemblage of mirrors, positioned to reflect light from below. The Honor Board Room and the forum would be sheathed in maple. Meeting and seminar rooms surrounding the central space would have glass “storefront” facades, adapted to the campus’s Netsch-mandated seven-foot grid. The architects incorporated a number of “green” features. Cooled air is delivered close to the floor, at very low velocity, “washing over” occupants without unnecessary cooling overhead. And the tower functions as a solar chimney.

Boyle began meeting with preservation officials even before the design was complete. “Since we were proposing to place a new building at the heart of the landmark district, I knew it could be controversial.” Early on, he won the support of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation at the Colorado Historical Society (known as History Colorado), the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Park Service (which has jurisdiction over National Historic Landmarks). At History Colorado, Saldibar says, there was a lot of discussion about the impact of the building, and back and forth over such items as the color of the glass. At the National Park Service, Boyle says, there were concerns about how the building would alter perceptions of the chapel, which Duffy’s team satisfied with a series of massing studies. But as a result of his early-bird strategy, he says, “There really wasn’t a whole lot of opposition.” Nor was there much opposition at the Academy itself. “People realize this is a university and universities grow,” he says.

Perhaps. But the Academy, with 18,000 acres (of which Netsch’s central campus occupies about 200 acres), might have kept the new building close to the ground, with the Chapel remaining the exclamation point at the end of a perfect lowercase sentence. As built, Polaris Hall may be in the same category as the Shard, Renzo Piano’s London skyscraper that is formally brilliant but too tall for its site.

Along with honesty and respect, perhaps the CCLD should teach modesty. There are few cases of architects turning down prestigious commissions on the grounds the buildings shouldn’t be built in the first place. But this might have been such a case, especially given that SOM was being asked to modify a key part of its own legacy. True, the firm was meeting the needs of a longtime client. And it was, as SOM says in a press release, trying to create a “reason-based counterpoint to the Academy’s faith-based icon.”

Perhaps those are worthy goals. And the new building has a lot going for it. But the Academy, and everyone who loves Modernism, has made a sacrifice for this temple to honor.