Unraveling One Architect’s Kaleidoscopic Design Theory in 9 Projects

Walter Netsch spells out the singular methodology behind the geometric complexity of his buildings.

7 min readFeb 25, 2016
Field theory lattice study. All images © SOM unless otherwise noted

Walter Netsch was described in The New York Times as “an architect who employed stubbornly individualistic theories to create the ethereal chapel at the United States Air Force Academy as well as bold, modernist conglomerations that repulsed some and enthralled others.”

He expounded on his equally innovative and divisive design aesthetic in Field Theory Architecture, a paper that outlined his versatile approach to the geometric generation of architectonic structures, which were intended to be uniquely suited to their purposes and environments. To commemorate what would have been Netsch’s 95th birthday this week, we present a version of this paper, originally published during the last year of his tenure at SOM in 1979.

Photo © Nancy Campbell Hays

Architecture, like any art, has aesthetic rules of organization, proportion and form. Historically, geometry has provided the key rules in classic Greek form with the temple, in Gothic architecture with the cathedral, and in Baroque architecture with structural technique of specific materials. Geometry gives special visual context to these architectural periods.

Today, modern technology has provided such a variety of structural techniques and materials that contemporary architecture (except large engineering feats) does not rely on structure for special visual context.

The modern dictum “form follows function” relates to the contemporary effort of natural expression devoid of beaux-arts applique decoration rather than an ordering aesthetic. Architects have had to conceive unique ordering systems, identifiable visual patterns or a heavy reliance on technology to develop recognizable form.

The field theory template.

Field theory architecture is an ordering system based upon mathematical proportion which combines the programmatic needs of use and the aesthetic rules of form and proportion.

Architecture is a social art. The physical use of buildings, climate and orientation combine with the aesthetic and material goals to give a meaningful expression of utilization. Good architecture must be both useful and beautiful. Field theory architecture is an ordering system based upon mathematical proportion which combines the programmatic needs of use and the aesthetic rules of form and proportion. Selected structural systems emphasize the aesthetic ordering. The application of a field provides a continuous proportional system with an infinity of mathematical variations. As in other contemporary aesthetic forms such as art and music, continuity, ambiguity, overlapping, scale change, lattice, pattern and shape are constant elements in ordering field theory.

The primary ordering systems in field theory are the combination of orthogonal (right angle patterns) and diagonal (angular patterns) most often defined by the rotated square. The combination of patterns becomes the field and the variety of patterns results in an endless choice of fields. The selected fields follow from the primary uses of the physical program and the character of the site.

Field theory was developed from Netsch’s work on the U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs (1963).

Nine projects have been selected to show the variety within the system, the special character of the field and the resulting uniqueness. Four of the field systems shown are completed buildings with an accompanying variety in scale, form and materials. Each relies on the proportional and ordering aesthetics of the selected fields.

Three panels (and the announcement) show the nine fields and the variety within them. Aesthetic disciplines develop jargons to describe them. The following descriptions explain the system, program and design of each project.

Beginning at 12 o’clock and moving clockwise, the fields and projects are:

  1. Lindquist Center I & II
  2. Fibonacci Series
  3. Wells College Library
  4. Pahlavi Center
  5. Netsch Residence
  6. Miami Museum of Art
  7. Basic Sciences
  8. Medical Sciences Library
  9. Behavioral Science Center

LINDQUIST CENTER I & II — University of Iowa, 1972 and 1978, is composed of two building programs of different use on a restricted urban site. The field is comprised of two systems, one for each building; the first is a computer center and research area, the second an education center with special laboratories, classrooms and offices. The small scale and tightness of the field reflects the restrictions of the site. The transition of the octagon field (which results in planning clusters of offices) is combined with the larger scale field of the newer building.

FIBONACCI SERIES, 1978, is a theoretical field based upon the mathematical system of Fibonacci (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc) which has many variations. The system is currently being explored for projects in Algeria where Fibonacci developed his mathema­tical system.

WELLS COLLEGE LIBRARY, Aurora, New York, 1968, is a classic use of two systems; a pack of three and a pack of four combinations of rotated squares. This combination of forms provides optional location of library book stacks by direction within the plan in both linear and radial patterns. The building, informal in nature, is located in a handsome rural setting where the building includes a self-contained galleria-walkway through the library acting as a campus street. The roof of the structure reassembles the components of the field at a larger scale.

PAHLAVI CENTER, University of Chicago, 1968 (unbuilt), illustrates the origin of a special field (nicknamed The Turban Field) which defines the shape and clustering of research offices in Humanities, Arts and Social Science. The combination of the cluster around a central rotated square or atrium follows the character of the building program. Changes in the field correspond to changes in the scale of the building needs.

NETSCH RESIDENCE, Chicago, 1974, is an urban house with an open plan evolving from the square and triangle which the plan forms. The roof structure, and the skylights, follow the dictates of the field. The two utility cores support viewing platforms, “urban tree houses”, which are extensions in space of the diagonal lines developed from the elements of the triangular field.

MIAMI UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUM, Oxford, Ohio, 1978, is a unique field combining the square and triangle to develop a series of exhibition galleries of varying sizes and volumes as well as a small meeting classroom. The variation in size and cube follows the proportion and the dynamics of the field. These proportions permit viewing the galleries as separate objects, and from certain vistas the galleries are seen as one visual element. The structure, window openings and masonry unit sizes reflect the proportional elements of this unique field.

BASIC SCIENCES, University of Iowa, 1972, marks the evolution of this field to incorporate laboratories and offices while surrounding a pedestrian street. The primary pattern of this field establishes a semi-circular octagon field of eight patterns. The laboratories operate independently of the street and, in form, this structure follows the street with essentially an informal medieval atmosphere. The walkway is Piranesian in scale and character.

MEDICAL SCIENCES LIBRARY, University of Iowa, 1973, is built on a standard library structural bay system to accommodate library book stacks, and develops a three dimensional field translating the rotated square to, sequentially, the square, the octagon, the cross, the inverse octagon. The building, like Basic Sciences and Wei Is College Library, also includes a pedestrian walk-way.

BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE CENTER, University of Illinois, Circle Campus, 1965, is a complex building with a variety of academic needs; lecture rooms, seminar rooms, classrooms, snack bars, research laboratories and off ices. The variety of elements in the field, the variations in the scale, latticing of geometric ele­ments all contribute to the expression of the complex program.

To learn more about Walter Netsch and his major contributions to the field of architecture, read his interview with Detlef Mertins, published in 2001:




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