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Walter Netsch (1920-2008)

Dates of Interview:

May 8; June 5-28, 1995

Location of Interview:

Netsch's home in Chicago


Betty J. Blum

Length of Transcript:

474 pages
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Biographical Summary

Walter Netsch was born in 1920 in Chicago and studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon graduation in 1943 he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Returning to civilian life in 1946, he took a job with L. Morgan Yost, a residential architect practicing in the suburbs of Chicago. In 1947 he joined the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In 1951, he transferred to the Chicago office of SOM, where he became partner and developed his innovative architectural aesthetic, known as "field theory." Netsch worked at SOM until retiring in 1979. Netsch's career included such important commissions as the U. S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado; the University of Illinois, Chicago; The Art Institute of Chicago's East Wing; and the Regenstein Libraries at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. After retiring from SOM, he maintained a consulting practice in Chicago. Netsch was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1967. Netsch died at his home in Chicago on June 15, 2008.

Interview Highlights

Netsch speaks about study at MIT; working in the office of L. Morgan Yost; thoughts on Mies van der Rohe and the Chicago School; Netsch-and-cash for Owings; the Inland Steel building; IIT campus work; U.S. Air Force Academy and Chapel; Field Theory; artists and collecting art; serving on the Fine Arts Commission, Washington, D.C.; Nathaniel Owings and other Skidmore, Owings & Merrill partners.

First study model for the Inland Steel building; Chicago, c.1954.
Department of Architecture, The Art Institute of Chicago.

United States Air Force Academy Chapel; Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1964.
Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing, courtesy of SOM.

Interview Excerpt

"I think social and private responsibility were in the air [after WW II] , whether you're talking about Charlie Eames, or Morgan Yost, or Paul Schweikher, or the Kecks, or Breuer and his 'bi-nuclear house'. The concept of [a zoned house] having a living and a private end was part of the dignity of man that was coming out of the Second World War, when democracy won. I think you have to understand that there was an ethic involved with the time, just as much as with the Vietnam debacle, that influenced America and changed everything around. The ethos of our culture affects our artifacts....The Postmodernists have pushed aesthetics. They did it for a revolutionary purpose. The Postmodernists did it to turn over the tables. It was the easiest way to turn over the tables in an affluent society, to appeal to the elite. The revolution in America was not going to occur at the bottom, it was going to occur with the elite. In our case, the revolution in 1946-47 was for America, for a democratic society that had won a war and preserved democracy." (p. 56)

Additional Resources

Walter Netsch images in the R&B Archives
Related archival materials in the R&B Archives
Works by or related to Netsch in the Department of Architecture and Design

Funding for this oral history was provided by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.