Walter Netsch’s Message to Grads

In a 1979 commencement speech, the boundary-pushing architect shared insights from an unconventional life in design.

9 min readMay 5, 2022
Photo © Michael Weinstein

On May 6, 1979, architect Walter Netsch received an honorary doctorate of humanities and gave a commencement address to the graduating class at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The site was a familiar one. The Miami University Art Museum, which Netsch designed, had opened one year prior. He spoke to the class of ’79 about the experiences that led to the final design for the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, and, upon its completion, an inward recognition that one “cannot return again to old ideas or old ways.” Indeed, Netsch’s buildings display his constant search for new, even radical, aesthetic expressions, and the art museum — one of his final works — was a result of this continued desire for reinvention.

Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Reverend Clergy, President Shriver, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, faculty friends, students and parents, and especially the graduating class of 1979.

Commencement addresses are an essential ingredient to a graduation ceremony, yet for the speaker there is always the ultimate concern that these moments will be only an interlude to the purpose of the day.

I recall watching Governor Adlai Stevenson battle a Lake Michigan wind, a noisy microphone, and a cold spring day at another graduation ceremony. Adlai’s words, always beautifully said whether one agreed or not, faded in and out with the weather when suddenly several pages escaped his grasp and disappeared in the wind. With usual aplomb, Governor Stevenson cheerily reminded everyone that the words — though golden and important — were secondary to the advice of the wind to speed the event.

At another commencement, I know the speaker conscientiously sent an extra copy and instructions to an alternate speaker. True to his premonition, the speaker did not arrive, and his alternate gave the speech and received an ovation which the author always thought more responsive to the delivery than the content.

What is required as much as the event of the threshold, is an inward recognition that you cannot return again to old ideas or old ways.

Well, we have no wind and my alternate is secure in my arrival, so the issue is mine. Though no humorist, I do have an academic story to tell.

Once upon a time there was a proctor at a long true-or-false exam who was amazed to discover a student diligently tossing a coin. Asking the reason, the student replied, “It’s either true or false.” As the exam progressed to the final minutes the proctor found the same student frantically tossing his coin. His reply this time was to the proctor’s repeated question — “I’m checking my answers.”

The words which follow require no quiz, but hopefully offer another alternative to coin tossing. This day and these honors are indeed a privilege and an event I shall cherish.

I am an architect, not a philosopher, though my work expresses a specific aesthetic; nor am I an entrepreneur or businessman. Therefore these words, though personal and built of my experience, attempt to use freedom, artistic freedom as a metaphor for our larger personal freedoms recognizing that each of us finds that freedom through search and dedication, and never without the support and help of our friends.

Field theory drawings of the Miami University Art Museum bookend an aerial rendering. Left and right images © SOM, rendering © Tan & Voss

To begin, I have chosen the title “Thresholds and Celebrations” for many reasons, the most obvious in honor of this your day, your hour, your graduation. Some of you are aware that during your matriculation at Miami, I too was in my way sharing these past four Miami years with you. The selection of the architect, the design development with the building committee, the preparation of the construction drawings and the actual construction and dedication of the Miami University Art Museum, and all that transpired during your regime on campus, even including a special opportunity to work with the graduate students in architecture. Now, all of these years both for you and me have not been a continuous celebration, nor has each step in the design and construction outlined the kind of threshold I had in mind. A threshold, when realized, is not truly effective for me until I can quietly, personally recognize that an event changed my life and direction. What is required as much as the event of the threshold, is an inward recognition that you cannot return again to old ideas or old ways. Celebrations are more spontaneous, events of joy and cheer, useful for our equanimity and health though not critical to the mind and soul.

So we share today in celebration of your years consumed in books and study, play and interaction. Person to person we may feel we have earned the day, but rather we have fulfilled obligations and privately, we hope, some dreams.

Today is hardly my graduation day in 1943, a cold January in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a world war going full tilt and with full recognition that as we graduated from college and speeded up our studies by going to school all year we hastened our time for military service. Fortunate to complete schooling, unhappy that the use of our skills and hopes and dreams would have to wait, we rather perfunctorily received our diplomas in Symphony Hall in Boston. This day was neither a threshold nor a true celebration.

Netsch (right) and his team working on the USAF Academy campus. © SOM

Thresholds are essentially private — for me most often from my work. Many years ago when I was responsible for the design team for the Air Force Academy, I worked and struggled to create a new campus that would out of necessity be a national institution. Our client was the military, only a semi-fond memory in the past; the site was “beautiful infinity” situated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the pressures were intense for starting even with the freshman class we were to provide an academy complete so that the first class could graduate in their new permanent home.

For my world in architecture, controversy is the most often the conflict of aesthetics, the arguments for and against the tradition of the new in form, materials, and technology. Many could accept a contemporary Air Force Academy but insisted upon a traditional church. This I could not do, and a fresh beginning was necessary. The academy was ready for that graduation, but not the chapel, for the initial design was not approved and it was necessary for me to begin again a new design. For three reasons, I took an intense, lonely trip of six weeks from England through France and Italy to look at Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance churches.

The USAFA Cadet Chapel. Photo © SOM

The first reason was pragmatic. Nat Owings, the senior partner in the firm, concluded that no matter how beautiful a church I could redesign — if it would be controversial and I had not seen Notre Dame — all was lost politically. The second reason, still pragmatic, was fundamental. I had been living the design and construction of the Air Force Academy. Program, design, detail technique — all my life intensified to that schedule. We used all of our available current knowledge, we pushed edges in technology, we conquered time, we were fulfilling the time and the dream, but it was a consuming passion. The third reason was the personal opportunity to discover the past.

Suddenly in Europe I came face to face with other times, with architecture of beauty often, but more an architecture of pain and variety. There in the cathedrals was the work of centuries built with the faith and effort of unknown workers. The trip was a personal celebration with these workers in architecture. I could rise in the morning in Italy and say to myself, “Mike,” (for I was beginning to feel on personal terms with Michelangelo) “what of yours shall I see today?” I was consumed by the sense many times of a special place and the days were days of architectural beauty and celebration. Only dimly did I recognize that the beginnings of my future were starting — that the seeds of threshold were being planted.

After designing the Cadet Chapel, Netsch recalled, “I could not return again to the way I created buildings.” Chapel sketch and center photo © SOM, right photo: Nick Merrick © Hedrich Blessing

The new chapel was designed out of the private discoveries of that trip, and it was contemporary yet to me full of tradition in the new, and it was controversial, and there was a congressional investigation. I owe much to the testimony of not experts but people who felt keenly of their own experiences and their concept not of controversy but of beauty and design, and appropriateness that made the building possible.

The chapel, for me then, was a threshold. I could not return again to the way I created buildings. Now almost 20 years later, the museum here at Miami is a result of that threshold.

Most of you are not involved with the arts, yet the creativity in which your life evolves is a design in itself.

True, many things haven’t changed. For many of you, perhaps the design of the museum appeared to you as radical and foreign to this campus as the chapel; the faith of the administration was again tested; and the final test now for the museum is in its use and enjoyment. This year, this spring, begins the 50th year of the School of Fine Arts at Miami University. To celebrate, some events have already occurred, many will follow — at the museum, on the campus. Whether these events will be for those students following you a personal celebration or a threshold will depend upon those private secret quiet moments when the arts and beauty and creativity can speak — softly with the quiet confidence of appreciation and enjoyment.

Most of you are not involved with the arts, yet the creativity in which your life evolves is a design in itself. In a world fast changing, patterns of change will influence your normal desire for stability and order. To evolve within these conflicting patterns will require your personal recognition of thresholds when they occur. Sometimes days and events in one’s life, like this day for you (and for me), seem natural when the event occurs — sometimes the day truly becomes special — a real celebration. So I hope that most of you will remember this day and your memories will be less concerned than mine were in 1943 for me — for some of you even this day may be more than a casual celebration.

The Miami University Art Museum. Photos © Abby Sadin | Barbara Karant Photography

Today, as happened many years ago, the design of a building — the new museum — has directed my life by opening vistas, creating new events, and through care and controversy reaffirmed these values which have directed my life. Now I wish for each of you that in crisis as a person, you can be fortunate enough to reach a threshold that sets forth the special journey so that all that was accomplished in school as rule or right, that all that was learned in experience through work and anguish, that all that was made known through love and friendship reaches more than a plateau, but a threshold for each of you and your hopes and dreams.




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