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MODERNIST MONDAY: Walter Netsch

Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with ten quick facts. Our February pick is Chicago architect Walter Netsch, whose use of Brutalism and Field Theory led him to create some of the defining buildings of his time.

A portrait of Walter Netsch

When he was a teenager, the Century of Progress International Exposition, also known as the World’s Fair, took place in Chicago, showcasing incredible modern architecture from George Keck and Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings, who later founded Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Netsch moved to Massachusetts to study at MIT, and after graduating, went on to join the Army Corps of Engineers.

(left) A scene from the Century of Progress Exhibition (right) A scene from the Century of Progress Exhibition

Shortly after his time in the Army Corps, Netsch landed a job at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) in Tennessee. Soon after, he transferred to SOM’s Chicago office, where he designed the city’s first skyscraper to be built since the Great Depression, the Inland Steel Building (1954). Inspired by Japanese architecture, Netsch completed projects domestically as well as in Okinawa and Tokyo during his first decade at the firm. 

The Inland Steel Building

Netsch’s architectural style, while unique, was closely associated with Brutalism, a style known for minimalism, unadorned building materials, and more focus on structure than decorative design.

(left) A college campus designed by Netsch (right) A building at the University of Illinois by Netsch

During his first decade at SOM, Netsch designed buildings for the US military, of which he had once been a member. His designs for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the 1950s gained considerable attention, and the Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy is now a National Historic Landmark.

(left) Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy (right) US Naval Postgraduate School along the coast

Netsch developed his own architectural signature, called Field Theory, which was exemplified in the Cadet Chapel. Field Theory involves rotating the typical square shapes seen in design to create more dynamic shapes, all radiating from a “core” of the structure, which usually contains stairs or other utilities. Netsch continued to design buildings for schools and large organizations with this idea in mind; the Wells College Library in New York and the Miami University Art Museum both exhibit Field Theory techniques.

(left) An aerial view of a Netsch building using Field Theory methods (right) A drawing using Field Theory methods

In 1963, Netsch married future Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark, who taught at Northwestern University. In 1967, he was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Through the 1960s and 70s, Netsch designed multiple buildings at Northwestern, including research centers, libraries, and other buildings, a process he had called the most satisfying of his career.

(left) Dawn Clark Netsch later in her career (right) An aerial view of Netsch’s work at Northwestern

Throughout his career, Netsch continued to bring his eye for Brutalism and his unique Field Theory to many institutions around the world, with structures at The Mayo Clinic, The Art Institute of Chicago, and Texas Christian University, among others. Netsch taught architecture at Rhode Island School of Design, and was appointed to the Northwestern University Library Board of Governors and awarded numerous honorary degrees.

A portrait of Netsch

After his retirement from SOM in 1979, Netsch served as Commissioner of the Chicago Park District from 1986 to 1989. Netsch passed away in his native Chicago in 2008, but not before leaving an unforgettable mark as one of Chicago’s greatest Brutalists.

SOURCES:

“Walter Netsch,” Wikipedia; “Walter Netsch,” Architectural Record; “Walter Netsch Biography,” Northwestern University

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