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Chicago Architect

Nov-Dec07 | Answers to Zurich | Walter Netsch

Zurich speaking to Esposito

Walter Netsch (right) and Zurich Esposito

Doug Snower Photography

Walter Netsch's study

Inside Netsch's Old Town home

Doug Snower Photography

The innovator and iconoclast talks with Zurich Esposito about age and architects

Walter greeted me warmly, looking healthy and well, and led me on a mesmerizing tour of the fascinating home in Old Town he designed in 1974 for his wife, Dawn Clark Netsch, himself, and their impressive art collection (then growing, now exploding). Walter led the way in his wheelchair (his legs were amputated several years ago, following complications from diabetes), swiftly navigating the interconnected angular spaces that make up an Escher-like ensemble of ultimately pleasing living spaces organized on various levels, following the tenets of his "field theory."

I had not seen Walter Netsch, FAIA, since AIA Chicago's 2006 Annual Meeting last December at the University Club, where he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from our chapter at the age of 86. His eloquent acceptance speech left me, and others, wanting to hear more from this man whose contributions to Chicago's architecture and design community are numerous.

Finally, Walter directed me to sit on one of several Eames chairs—"Charlie said I had to have these for the house," he explained—in front of a giant original Roy Lichtenstein painting depicting another interior space that covers an entire wall of Netsch's study, where we settled in for some Q and A.

Z: Walter, what are you working on these days?

W: Well, I'm not trying to design an office building or a condo; I'm working on the year 2060. I've been working on issues that relate to climate change, first of all because it's so sad and tragic and horrible. I'm working on solutions for dealing with the consequences and conditions we are going to face by the year 2060.

Z: So clearly you continue to work and to do research. You've also been fighting very hard to keep your Illinois architecture license without keeping up with continuing education requirements, but it sounds like you are actually doing a lot of research and learning.

W: There is somebody in that license office that doesn't like me, or doesn't like Skidmore, or something. I don't need learning units for having lunch with product manufacturers to see their newest whatever-it-is. I find that a little unnecessary at my age and I am not with a firm where that would be beneficial to me.

Z: Licensed architects in Illinois can retire their license and take the designation "architect, retired." With that status, you would not need to attend lunch-and-learns. But I don't think that's the part that really bothers you. There are other ways of earning continuing ed requirements.

W: I earned my license as an architect. Now they want me to send the license back? I am fighting for anybody who's had a decent career, especially.

Z: Can you expect the licensing board to determine who has and who hasn't had a "decent career?"

W: I don't like having my license taken away from me. I don't expect the licensing board to do that.

Z: Your fight has gotten a lot of attention, but so has your association over the years with the design of some very famous buildings, like the Inland Steel and the chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Are there buildings you designed that deserved more attention or recognition than they actually received?

Miami Art Museum

Miami University Art Museum in Oxford, Ohio

Photo courtesy of SOM

W: The Miami University Art Museum. It's a beautiful building. Three different shapes in limestone and glass that come together in different ways. It's like a sculpture for art. It's not well known, but the building is beautiful and important to me.

Z: You spent your career at SOM and were very successful. Was it difficult rising to the top in such a competitive environment?

W: In large offices which are involved in good architecture and complicated people, complications occur. Nat Owings had two desires for Skidmore Owings & Merrill: that it be the greatest architecture firm in the world, and that it not be Miesian. That's natural. But there were people like Bruce Graham, also very talented, who believed in Mies. Gordon (Bunshaft) was a Corbusier fan. It seemed to be very difficult for him to like anyone else. So there was conflict with all that.

Nat Owings sort of picked me as a hope very early. I had studied at MIT. There were no gods at MIT, so Nat had no problems with me in his conflict with Mies. Bruce Graham, though, was perfectly willing to do the Miesian thing. That was ok, but that didn't mean I had to like it.

Monday mornings we would have the partners meeting. Several of the partners would jump on me every Monday morning. "You've got to raise your profit ratio," was what they said. Some of the partners had dreams of making a million dollars a year. I had never even thought of it. None of us made that much, as far as I know. What they make today is beyond me.

So I had these sorts of difficulties. This made me wonder sometimes if I should stay at the firm. But Dawn would remind me that I didn't want the worries associated with having my own firm--worry about the rent, the furniture, the people. "You want to handle all that?" she'd ask. Of course I didn't. "Well, then you stay where you are," she'd say.

Nat Owings made being at Skidmore easy for me. There was some favoritism in the firm. The boss liked me. Nat gave me the Air Force Academy project at 34. That's very young to be doing a project like that in such a big office. I was supposed to show my work to Gordon (Bunshaft). That was fine with me. Gordon would study the drawings, sometimes make a change. If I didn't like the change, I could go home and change it back. I didn't worry about what would happen; I had a quiet confidence.

Z: Would you recommend that to other young architects?

W: Well, not necessarily. But I had the idea early on that every Chicago architect should make a contribution to architecture. We had had all these wonderful leaders in architecture come to Chicago to make their life's work here. We should all do something to make a difference.

Z: And how did you get the job at SOM?

W: I was interviewed by John Merrill. It was after the army, I was maybe 26, and working for Morgan Yost at the time. When I told Morgan I was leaving to go to Skidmore, he suddenly offered me a partnership. I told my father this, and he asked one question. That was, if Morgan Yost had ever mentioned such a partnership before I told him I might leave. The answer was no. And so I left Morgan and went to Skidmore.

Z: Are there any clients you thought allowed and fostered your best work?

W: I really had no client problems. Whenever I was hired, the clients always expected an original building. Not a copy of someone else's work. And not a copy of something I had already done. But I was never a prima donna designer. That's just not in my German, born-on-the-south-side, son-of-a-meatpacker background. [Netsch's father was the vice president of Armour and the family lived in the South Shore neighborhood.]

But now it's all developer buildings. They build them for somebody with a 10-year lease and that's it. I think it's because of the non-responsibility of the owners that there aren't better opportunities for good architecture.

Z: Are there any architects working in Chicago now whose work you particularly admire or pay attention to?

W: I consider Helmut Jahn the best architect in Chicago now. That doesn't make us have lunch together every day…or ever. He liked my work, but we never competed. I really like his work. In his work, he thinks it all out. The buildings don't all look alike. You may not even like a building he does, but that's a separate problem. Ralph Johnson at Perkins+Will is also very good.

Z: You've had many successful projects. Do you consider any of your projects to be failures?

W: I did some dorms at the Air Force Academy long after we did the campus itself. They really were awful. They were for visiting officers who were out there to have a good time. Well, I didn't design them a good-time joint—the dorms I designed were rather perfunctory.

It was a case of the wrong architect and the wrong client. That project was a flop. I wasn't proud of it at all. But I wasn't going to design a nightclub or a whorehouse. That's what it became. They had a particular ethic of their own. It's not mine. And I didn't understand that. I misunderstood the client, in other words, and designed a lousy building for them.

The Inland Steel building. That could have been quite wonderful. I designed a double glass curtain wall system, much like what you see some architects doing today. It was very energy efficient. But in the middle of that, I was assigned to lead the Air Force Academy campus project. Twenty thousand raw acres to plan, design and build. I wasn't going to complain. But Bruce Graham finished the Inland Steel Building. It could have been a better building.

Z: Your work has been praised and it has been criticized, some would say in equal proportions. How does that affect you?

W: A lot of people don't like my work. Some people liked and some people didn't like my buildings for the University of Illinois in Chicago. But what I did there still gets recognized for looking at campus planning in a 21st century mode, instead of, say, the campus at University of Illinois in Champaign. It's a completely different model. But those dorms at the corner of the campus were built there, I don't know, to make me mad. That campus has been an up and down situation for me.

Z: What do you consider the greatest pleasure of architecture?

W: The moment of creation. When you work and work and the idea comes to you. It's the biggest, precious moment. I'm getting that feeling with the 2060 work I'm doing.

Z: So you still really enjoy being an architect?

W: Of course. And I'm not using my license, but I don't like it taken away from me. By the way, what are you going to call me in this article with all this license nonsense? An ex-architect?

Z: An architect.