Frank Lloyd Wright and USAFA

Air Force Announces Design for the Air Force Academy

When the Air Force released the proposed design for the Academy by architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) in May 1955, reaction ran the gamut from praise ("heavenly", "wonderful") to ridicule ("a modernistic cigarette factory"). Especially controversial was the chapel ("an assemby of wigwams"). Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees held hearings on the Academy in July 1955. At one point the House even withheld (temporarily) funding for the Academy.

Witnesses at the hearings included a wide variety of representatives from the stone, brick and building trades, all expressing their concern over the lack of traditional materials.

As the plan evolved, some glass was replaced with stone (Arnold Hall and Fairchild Hall). Walter Netsch’s original controversial design for the chapel was replaced by a generic cube, deferring the final design to a later debate. Interestingly, the final chapel design, also by Walter Netsch, used the same basic form as the original, the tetrahedron.

One of the most strident critics was Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright wanted to design the Air Force Academy. He headed a group of architects under the name Kittyhawk Associates to bid for the job, but withdrew from consideration in July 1955.

Wright was not shy in expressing his dissatisfaction with the SOM plans and did so in a variety of venues over the next few months, while occasionally hinting at his own ideas for the Academy.

Wright's Concept

"The setting is splendid and has as a background some of the most beautiful peaks in the Rockies. The site is ideal to inspire an Air Force officer training school which will always have organic progress as its aim.

"The buildings must be completely organic in the best modern sense. But at the same time, both the buildings and the site must, when they are completed, present a characteristic beauty of which the whole nation may be justly proud."

– Frank Lloyd Wright quoted in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, July 2, 1954

 

Asked specifically what the chapel might have been like, he said it would look like something that was characteristic of the landscape, “perhaps like an evergreen.”

– Frank Lloyd Wright quoted in the Colorado Springs Free Press, May 27, 1955

 

"I went out to the site, and I saw it, and it impressed me so much that I did not sleep at night for a long time. I have the design in the back of my head.

"it [Wright's concept] is woven right in with that site. The chapel is the apex of the thing, and the whole thing is wound down the side of that slope, until you get in the great field below.

"I want to see it appropriate. Your chapel would be the crowning feature of it on top of the mountain, and the whole thing would go up this way [indicating], and out from a central avenue running up the side of the mountain with escalators taking you up as you please. The center line would run up to the chapel on top of the hill. I am not going to give the scheme away."

– Frank Lloyd Wright before the House Appropriations Committee, July 7, 1955

 

At right is a sketch drawn by Wright on the back of a letter, thought to be a representation of his concept for the Air Force Academy. It is the only drawing known to exist.

(Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-26498. Used with Permission)

 
 
 
Documents

Colorado Springs Free Press

Frank Lloyd Wright Looks Over Site for Air Academy

By Harold Wynne

July 2, 1954  Eighty-five-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, scrutinized the site of the United States Air Academy in an on-the-spot visit late Thursday afternoon, termed it “wonderful” and made it clear that he considers the site a challenge to “express America” by designing the new school’s buildings.

He heads a group of eight architects which have banded together as Kittyhawk Associates to bid for the job of designing the Air Academy.

As he stepped from an automobile which brought him from Denver to Husted north of Colorado Springs Thursday, Architect Wright scanned the skyline to the west and said:

“Charlie Lindbergh picked a wonderful site.”

He and his party were met by a group of Colorado Springs businessmen and newsmen, who accompanied him on a brief tour of the Cathedral Rock Ranch area.

[Continued]


Architect Issues Statement on Design for New Academy

July 2, 1954  Following is Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s formal statement on the potential design of the United States Air Academy buildings:

“The Academy must express America. The buildings and broad sweeps of rolling acres must be made one with the modern concept that the Air Force represents.

“It is well begun this appropriate site has been chosen for the new academy. It’s setting is splendid, its background some of the most beautiful peaks in the Rockies. The site is ideal to inspire an Air Force officer training school which will always have organic progress as its aim. So the academy itself must be more than a group of buildings in which Air Force officers will be educated and trained. It should symbolize the ever-expanding future of America to which the Air Force and our American people are therein and thereby dedicated.

“The buildings must be completely organic in the best modern sense but at the same time both building and site must, when they are completed, present a characteristic beauty of which the whole nation may be justly proud. The architecture of the new academy must represent the best America can produce.”

 
 

Wright Terms Academy Design ‘Factory-Like’

By Harold Wynne

May 27, 1955. World-famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright Thursday said sketches of buildings for the Air Academy look to him “as if another factory had moved in where it ought not to be.” Wright, who last July made a personal inspection of the Academy’s site, made his statement in a letter to The Free Press after seeing sketches of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the Academy’s architects. The sketches were unveiled here May 14.

The 85-year-old Wright said the Academy “will probably be known as Talbott’s Aviary or, more realistically, a factory for bird-men.”

Wright suggested that the plans for the Academy chapel be thrown away. “I note that the plan-factory magnate who fathered the opus (I see several hands in it) says the chapel needs another year’s study,” he said. “I suggest ten more and then throw it away.”

“When the great art of Architecture comes down to this sort of thing–what is the right name for such violation of nature?” he said.

Wright, who was architect of the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo, Japan, and other major structures has been noted as the leading exponent of the “American Expression” in architecture.

[Continued]

 

Designer Defends Outline for Air Academy Chapel

May 28, 1955.  A partner in the firm which is designing the Air Academy said Saturday, "If we produced a chapel design that everyone liked, it would be very dull."

John Merrill, partner in the architects firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill, made the statement when asked to comment on the criticism of the chapel design Thursday by noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Merrill is a guest at the Broadmoor Hotel.

"Mr. Wright has the perfect right to his opinion of the designs. I don't think it necessarily represents the opinions of most architects.

"We have a great deal of respect for Mr. Wright's work. He is a great architect. He has never been known to pull his punches on something he doesn't like and he evidently doesn't like this.

"The chapel design must be developed, but I don't think it will be changed. I believe that as a start, it has a lot of merit.

Walter A. Netsch, Jr., the man who drew the actual designs, declined to comment on the Wright statement when contacted at his Chicago home. "If there is going to be any announcement, it will have to be through Nathaniel Owings, I feel that he should make any comment."

[Continued]

 

United States House of Representatives

On 7 July 1955, Wright appeared as a witness before the House Appropriations Subcommittee conducting hearings on the Air Force Academy. A portion of his statement hints as his design idea:

Mr. MAHON [Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee]. Do you have a vision as to what the Academy should look like, and, if so, about how would it look?

Mr. WRIGHT. I have, and that is what hurts. I had a perfect vision of that building. I went out to the site, and I saw it, and it impressed me so much that I did not sleep at night for a long time. I have the design in the back of my head.

Mr. MAHON. Does such design involve taller buildings than these, or some flat-topped buildings?

Mr. WRIGHT. My dear Mr. Mahon, I could not describe it to you; it is woven right in with that site. The chapel is the apex of the thing, and the whole thing is wound down the side of that slope, until you get in the great field below.

Mr. WHITTEN [Member of the House Appropriations Committee]. Even as a layman, it strikes one as being odd to see, and I have been in that country years ago, the mountains and beautiful lines have some flat something such as this.

Mr. WRIGHT. Yes.

Mr. WHITTEN. In an area where the mountains stand out, and a place where you would look for at least spires, or something that would blend in with the surroundings. This thing made like a pancake looks out of place even to a layman.

Mr. WRIGHT. It is a factor moved into the wrong place. That was my first reaction. I think it should be something for the American people.

I want to see it appropriate. Your chapel would be the crowning feature of it on top of the mountain, and the whole thing would go up this way [indicating], and out from a central avenue running up the side of the mountain with escalators taking you up as you please. The center line would run up to the chapel on top of the hill. I am not going to give the scheme away.

[Continued]

 
 
 

United States Senate

Later in July 1955, Wright again appeared as a Congressional witness, this time before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee:

Mr. WRIGHT. I suggest a fresh start and a paid competition, a nominal sum given to men chosen for their creative ability in the various strata of our life. We are passing away now from the old sort of thing that characterizes Washington.

Senator STENNIS. You mean a group of architects?

Mr. WRIGHT. Say, three, selected for their capacity to put something into this besides mechanisms.

Senator STENNIS. Three architectural concepts?

Mr. WRIGHT. Then I would suggest as a tribunal, the young people of this Nation. I would have the three designs made into brochures and send it to the principals of the high schools of the Nations and let the children-we won't call them children, I think they are referred to as teen agers-vote on it and you take that result and decide how it is to be executed. I would like to see some native appreciation concerning what we call architecture. It is the mother art. There is no culture without it as a basis.

Why not make it educational. Why not get something out of this fiasco for the people of the United States and that means the young people, doesn't it?

Senator STENNIS. As a general proposition, do you not think the architecture should blend with the surroundings of that area?

Mr.WRIGHT. It has been the ambition of my life to make it come true. I think everything I have built you will see there.

[Continued]

 
 
 

Architectural Record

The Architectural Record of August 1955 published an extensive treatment of the Academy design titled What Kind of Criticism Has Congress Heeded in Debate Over Air Force Academy Design Concept? An extract of Wright's:

"The scheme for the Academy now presented wholly ignores the great opportunity afforded American architecture by the noble character of the site and has no feeling whatsoever for the nature of the occasion. I suppose this is to be expected because expedient government would choose expedient architecture as expedient for the purpose. But what may be tolerated as an urban poster for soap is not tolerable as inspiration for the youth of America.

This type of standardization in commercial architecture has already shown severe limitations now so clearly manifest in the mental confusion of this Academy Air Force design. To execute it would only be to build into our national future a confession of the failure of the vital spirit of America. Our country has a spirit. We cannot afford to credit–much less build-in–any such victory of publicity-managed commercialism as this already dated cliché represents. These “composites” now omnipresent in the practice of Architecture should never be trusted with a concept. Their function is at best executive. Confine them there."

[Continued]

 

An extract of an editorial by John Knox Shear, editor-in-chief of Architectural Record and a member of the AIA:

"We need an Air Force Academy. We do not need the divisive, disruptive delays that this back-biting will bring. We will get an Air Force Academy. It may very well fall short of our dreams; most buildings do. But we need buildings and must continue to build them; always as effectively and often as swiftly as we are able. And to do this and to bring to bear all our developing technology on increasingly complex problems, architects and engineers must work patiently with each other and with their clients and between them there must exist the greatest sympathy and understanding and mutual confidence. Everything must be done to achieve this goal. Anything which is done to frustrate it–deliberately or unwillingly, in malice, in blind egoism, or in the name of an art which will be honored only as artists are honored and honorable–must be identified as frustrating the welfare of the country."

[Continued]

 


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