Walter Netsch Biography

Walter Netsch

Acclaimed architect Walter A. Netsch, Jr. was born February 23, 1920, in Chicago. As a young man, he was inspired by iconic Chicago architecture — Wright’s Robie House, Sullivan’s Auditorium Building and Carson, Pirie, Scott, and Company Building, and the modern architecture he saw at the Century of Progress International Exposition in 1933-34.

Mr. Netsch studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and upon receiving his degree in 1943, he enlisted in the United States Army Corps of Engineers. He began his career as an architect working for L. Morgan Yost. In 1947, he joined Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), when the firm was designing Oak Ridge, Tennessee, an Atomic Energy Commission town. Mr. Netsch transferred to SOM’s Chicago office in 1951. His design of the landmark Inland Steel Building (1954), the first skyscraper to be built in Chicago's Loop following the Great Depression, was completed by Bruce Graham.

In his first decade at SOM, Mr. Netsch designed buildings and environments in San Francisco, Okinawa, Tokyo, and Chicago. Similar to Frank Lloyd Wright and other Chicago architects since the city’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Mr. Netsch was influenced by Japanese architecture, in particular by tatami mat proportions. He was a SOM partner for design from 1955-79 and, in 1967, he was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Mr. Netsch married Dawn Clark, a Northwestern graduate, in 1963. Mrs. Netsch taught at the Northwestern School of Law from 1965-92, practiced law in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, and was elected Illinois State Comptroller after serving five terms in the State Senate. In 2002, she received the Roger Baldwin Lifetime Achievement Award from the ACLU, honoring her dedication to civil liberties throughout her career as a politician, lawyer and professor. She continues to teach as a professor emerita.

Early projects for Mr. Netsch included the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California (1954), and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado (1954-64). The Air Force Academy was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark on its fiftieth anniversary in 2004. The Cadet Chapel gained Mr. Netsch and SOM international recognition. Visually the most compelling structure on the Academy’s grounds (as well as Colorado’s top man-made tourist attraction), the chapel's seventeen soaring silvery spires ascend to a height of 150 feet.

Mr. Netsch developed his signature architectural aesthetic known as Field Theory by rotating basic squares into complex geometric components that radiate out from cores containing utilities and stairwells. In addition to breaking the Miesian box, Field Theory provides aesthetic and psychological variety, as well as programmatic and structural flexibility. Open spaces are typically defined by both vertical and horizontal planes and are accessible via multiple levels. His projects have been featured in numerous architectural publications such as Inland Architect, Progressive Architecture, Architectural Forum, Architectural Record, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, L’Architettura, and Deutsche Bauzeitung.

A comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary literature on Walter Netsch and Field Theory is now available online, and the book Walter A. Netsch, FAIA: A Critical Appreciation and Sourcebook has been published by Northwestern University Press.

Northwestern University facilities designed by Mr. Netsch include the Lakefill project (1962-68); Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center (1966; razed 1995); Rebecca Crown Center (1968); O. T. Hogan Biological Sciences Building (1970); University Main Library (1970); Frances Searle Building (1972); Regenstein Music Building (1977); and Seeley G. Mudd Library for Science and Engineering (1977). Regarding the University Library, Mr. Netsch related, “The design and programming was one of the most satisfying experiences of my professional life.”

He designed libraries and other facilities at the Illinois Institute of Technology; the University of Iowa; the University of Illinois at Chicago; Wells College (Aurora, New York); Texas Christian University (Fort Worth); and the University of Chicago.

Mr. Netsch is also known for his work on hospitals and clinics, including the Mayo Clinic and Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center. Museum designs include the east wing of the Art Institute of Chicago and Miami University Art Museum (Oxford, Ohio). He has held teaching positions at Rhode Island School of Design and at several Big Ten universities where he has also received honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Northwestern in 1980. He served as Commissioner of the Chicago Park District from 1986-89.

Mr. Netsch was inducted as a life member of the Northwestern University Library Board of Governors in October 2004. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago in May 2008.

Walter Netsch died at his home in Chicago on June 15, 2008, at the age of 88.

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Photographs courtesy Northwestern University Archives