Object Lesson


Walter Netsch, Architect

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I haven't earned the right to call myself an architect. People occasionally refer to me as one in conversation, and I'm always quick with a correction. I did go to architecture school, I'll explain, but that doesn't make me an architect. To use that title, I'd have to undergo a lengthy internship and pass a grueling examination, in accordance with state and national regulations, and I haven't done either.

Walter Netsch, on the other hand, is eminently justified in using the title of architect—no matter what the state of Illinois has to say on the matter (“Illinois Pulls Walter Netsch's License Over CEUs,” July 2007, page 26). Architects work hard for the right to call themselves architects, and our readers are justifiably outspoken when we incorrectly apply the term. So when I refer to Chicago's Netsch as an architect in the headline of this article, I do so with considerable forethought.

At 87, Netsch is an elder statesman of the profession. A retired design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, he was responsible for major projects such as the Colorado Springs campus of the Air Force Academy, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 2004. Netsch is now in poor health and forced to rely on a wheelchair since the partial amputation of both legs.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) reportedly has been on Netsch's case for some time, in a scenario that smells a bit like bullying. The state did agree to grant him a medical waiver in 2005, but only after a bit of prodding: in other words, Netsch filed suit. In March of this year, the state finally lost its patience and informed Netsch that the waiver would no longer apply. The reason? The requirements for fulfilling continuing education requirements can now be accomplished online.

Is it fair to assume that every octogenarian owns a computer or knows how to use one? Here's an even better question: What possibly could be the benefit of pulling Netsch's license? He's no longer in active practice, so lives aren't at stake. What is at stake is the personal and professional dignity of an 87-year-old man. For many, “architect” is more than a job title—it's an identity.

The IDFPR (and all members of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards) should rethink the policy of stripping older architects of their professional status. There has to be an alternative to the bureaucratic, black-and-white status quo. Some nations have created a special designation for elderly artists—ningen kokuhô, or National Living Treasure, in Japan, for example, and Maître d'Art, or Master of Art, in France. UNESCO, for its part, has created guidelines for the development of national “Living Human Treasures” programs to protect the interests and talents of venerable artists. I'd like to send a copy of the guidelines to the IDFPR. They may not name Netsch a “Living Human Treasure,” but “Architect Emeritus” would be a start.


Comments (21 Total)

  • Posted by: CINTA.D | Time: 8:23 PM Saturday, November 10, 2007

    Don't let your ego get in the way as most tend to do. It's like those really old people that drive on the road and we know they should not have had their license renewed... There is a time when one comes to the conclusion that retirement is eminent. Look, don't worry, he is an architect and will always be no matter what.

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  • Posted by: vincemichael | Time: 8:36 PM Wednesday, September 19, 2007

    Ned: Nice to see your blog. I interviewed Walter a couple of years ago and have great respect for him and you are right, he is an architect. Where did Wright, Gropius, and Mies go to school and how many CE credits did they earn? Walter might not meet the modern standards, but that still puts him in good company. The only Prairie School architect to build in Europe (and whose 1916 building inspired Netsch to an architecture career)- Barry Byrne - never even finished 8th grade. Schooling for architecture doesn't become common until the 1920s and I know an architect who got licensed in the 1980s without even a bachelor's degree. As a sometime CEU provider, I of course see both the economic and technical/professional value in the system, but when it paints itself into an absurdist corner like this one.... Vince Michael - Time Tells

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  • Posted by: fraserarch | Time: 12:33 PM Tuesday, September 11, 2007

    I just read your editorial and agree entirely with your sentiments. I agree as an architect who had the honor of spending some time with Walter Netsch years ago, and I agree as a practitioner who doesn't like the way good initial concepts like CEU's become inflexible and entrenched mini-bureaucracies. Nobody in the public or the profession is benefitted by stripping a retired luminary of his title. An emeritus category makes good sense. Bruce D. Fraser, AIA.

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  • Posted by: bchcomr | Time: 3:41 PM Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    RE: My comment of yesterday, I believe that I was off the mark in my inclusion of references to the Colorado instance. Please withdraw my comment. Thanks

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  • Posted by: bchcomr | Time: 3:52 PM Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    If ever the need for a voice of reason existed it is in the status of the retired professional. The AIA shows the way by granting the use of the title AIA Emeritus when one reaches the age of 70, without the required CEU's. The state of California grants an Inactive title as well as the state of New York and probably others as well. The state of Texas grants the title of Architect Emeritus and limits the ability to practice. Surely a body such as the NCARB would be the likely entity to lead a discussion and resolve this issue. I commend you in your efforts not to use the title as opposed to a recent case in Colorado where the board allowed itself to be persuaded by threat of legal action to grant the title to an unqualified individual whose obvious need was for the stature the title carried in his quest for political advantage.

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  • Posted by: johnbutter | Time: 2:22 PM Monday, August 20, 2007


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  • Posted by: kaggarwal | Time: 4:51 PM Thursday, August 16, 2007

    How about it!

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  • Posted by: rbarrow | Time: 1:20 PM Thursday, August 16, 2007

    How about Emeritius status? Does Illinois not have that provision? National AIA does. Alabama does. Sounds a lot like "that applies to everyone but me" thinking. 67 years old and still at it.

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  • Posted by: motogeezer | Time: 9:41 AM Tuesday, August 14, 2007

    Interesting, is it not? Remember when there weren't CEU requirements? (Oldtimer!) Somewhere along the line, things got more regulated and bureacratic. One of my friends claims it was to generate $$$, not to protect the safety or welfare of anyone (the consumer, especially). Another claims it was the AIA trying to protect turf. I think CEU's are a good thing, and there has been a debate over them forever. But an absolute requirement? I don't think so. Would a professional keep up with new developments on his/her own, or must they be mandated to by law? I think freedom should prevail, but obviously regulators disagreed. If we don't like it, let's work to overturn it. Though once in place, it seems unlikely to ever get it to go away. A conundrum.

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  • Posted by: motogeezer | Time: 9:29 AM Tuesday, August 14, 2007

    Not An Architect

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  • Posted by: gvmonday | Time: 8:18 AM Tuesday, August 14, 2007

    I am a sixty-four year old registered architect and licensed interior designer. I have been in private practice for forty-four years. I hold both under-graduate and graduate degrees and numerous design awards. If I decide to retire, do I suddenly become stupid? Do I loss a lifetime of professional accomplishments? When I have been a Somebody in my community, do I now have to acknowledge that I am a Nobody? Is that the deal?

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  • Posted by: stevenamu | Time: 11:53 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    The reason for a license in the first place is to separate those qualified from the perpetrators. The reason for CEs is to keep up one's qualifications. Any Architect willing to practice should keep up their CEs or quit the practice. An Architect who decides to follow the latter may refer to him/herself as a RETIRED ARCHITECT. The elitist designations that you mention are indeed unamerican since the process of recognition for such status is often flawed albeit not so in Mr. Netsch's case. While some surgeons are exempt from CEs because of a granfather clause, which would you prefer perform a life saving procedure on you - the exempt old expert or the younger surgeon more aware of the latest methods due to his CEs? The method currently is place for Architects in Illinois is at best a farce but, there is a legitimate raison d'etre for CEs in general.

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  • Posted by: Redleaf | Time: 5:42 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    The seasons of life come to us all. We learn, prove our knowledge, apply our skills for a time and eventually back away from the fray. To remove the earned title in retirement is to deny all that proceeded. An architect in active profesional practice should have the "special" designation not the tacked on "emeritus". Having worked with engineers and PE's my whole career I find the fuss about the title of architect a bit much. For legality, Professional Architect resolves the practicing vs non-practicing issue.

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  • Posted by: Yianni Doulis | Time: 5:19 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    Reacting to the comment by bperkaia, I think we need to strike a balance between emphasizing that our profession has its standards and is responsible to a wider public good, and a certain mean-spiritedness embodied in what we read in Ned's column. It belies a certain insecurity on the part of our profession that we're making such a fuss over whether a retired architect (and Mr Netsch is an emblematic example) can still call him or herself an architect. As kmsulliv suggests, how exercised do you think the AMA gets over retired doctors still getting called "Doc?" While I agree it is important (for the protection of the public interest, for the legal mechanism of censure, etc) to have licensing, nothing is served by counting "CE" beans in the case of architects emeritus. Who are these guys?

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  • Posted by: bcop26 | Time: 4:49 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    Ned, I totally agree with your assessment of Mr. Netsch's situation. I am one who does not believe in laws with out wiggle room. If one works as a legal architect for 40 or how many years and is in the twilight of his years I believe that he (or she of course) DESERVES to be addressed by the title of ARCHITECT for the duration of their lives. And keeping up with professional hours although a good idea, should be relaxed for seniors who are not practicing.

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  • Posted by: architectural | Time: 4:33 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    This craziness regarding Walter Netsch is not surprising. I had allowed my Illinois license to become dormant because I was unwilling to address the LU requirement. Recently I took some time to "earn" 24 months of LU's online. I found the online process rather painless, but a meaningless waste of effort. I can "learn" through reading and travelling and simply doing research for projects, but unless I want to spend time and money proving so,I must defer to accredited programs by advertising sponsers in order to qualify for so-called health/safety/welfare credits acceptable to the bureaucracy. Furthermore, the IDFPR are the most unceremonious, most inconsiderate and least helpful bureacrats I have ever dealt with -- perhaps excepting the guards on formor east German trains. At least representatives of other departments in other states have been gracious enough to guide one through the process, and to offer a bit of understanding and insight as well.

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  • Posted by: Barnet A. Bullock | Time: 4:24 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    I agree, there should be a title “Architect Emeritus” for situations like Walter's. I went to UICC during the 60's and 70's, right after it moved from Navy Pier. The school of architecture was originally situated in a bra factory. Students and faculty resisted moving to Netsch's "Field Theory" A & A building when it opened, but the "Brahaus" was soon torn down. I was amongst the very vocal (and poor mannered) students taking part in the demonstrations at the time. I still think the building & campus were poorly conceived, but later had several opportunities to work with Walter on private projects, and eventually apologized to him for my earlier behavior. He was, of course, more a gentleman than I. I wish I could apologize now for our profession’s treatment of him by the IDFPR and hope there will be some resolution of this inequity.

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  • Posted by: kmsulliv | Time: 3:52 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    I have had to explain to people for years that Architects are licensed professionals, "just like" doctors and lawyers. So, how do our professional cousins handle this situation? Is there some emeritus status for doctors and lawyers? I wouldn't think of calling a retired doctor anything BUT "doctor". Required Continuing Ed for retired practitioners is absurd.

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  • Posted by: robpdean | Time: 2:24 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    Ned: I agree wholeheartedly with your essay. As I approach retirement age myself, I have a special interest in retaining the title of architect or architect emeritus. Having been a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy many years ago, I have a special respect and reverence for Mr. Netsch. The architecture of the Academy and its splendid setting on the edge of the Rocky Mountains were an inspiration to me, especially over the course of the first very grueling year. Thank you for your very thoughtful support of Mr. Netsch and his right to be called an architect.

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  • Posted by: architreen | Time: 2:22 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    The right to declare one's self an architect is but a box that has it's planes defined by both tests and experience. As young and possibly older intern architects we strived to learn all that is needed to fit "within the box". Once we fit the norms, to be contained by the rules of the box, we declare ourselves to be "in", to be architects. This process, which is necessary to protect the public for safety and from banality of design wears on the innocense of the spirit of creativity that drew us all to the profession in the first place. Those of us that truly believe we are architects started the road long before any formal institution or boss originated directive entered the picture. I say let those that have paid their dues in hours and care and passion for design keep the title of ARCHITECT. Gary L. Gebhard Nebraska Architect

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  • Posted by: bperkaia | Time: 2:05 PM Monday, August 13, 2007

    You can't call yourself an architect but not uphold the legal requirements to be one. If he wishes to retain the title architect he needs to fulfill his CE requirements just like every other architect has to do. Perhaps if he expended the same energy to get his CE credits that he spends hiring attorneys this wouldn't be an issue. What kind of example does he set with this behaviour?

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About the Blogger

Ned Cramer

thumbnail image Ned Cramer is editor-in-chief of ARCHITECT, and editorial director of ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING, ECO-STRUCTURE, and METALMAG, published by Hanley Wood, a Washington, D.C.-based business media company. Prior to joining Hanley Wood, Cramer served as the first full-time curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), where he organized public programs and exhibitions such as "A Century of Progress: Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair" and "New Federal Architecture: The Face of a Nation." At CAF, projects under Cramer's direction received support from foundations and corporations such as Altria, Boeing, the Driehaus Foundation, the Graham Foundation, and the McCormick-Tribune Foundation. He speaks regularly on architecture, design, and related issues. The Avery Architectural Index lists nearly 100 articles with Cramer's byline, many written in his former capacity as executive editor of Architecture magazine. The recipient of an Arts Administration Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cramer has held positions at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Menil Collection in Houston. Cramer is an alumnus of the Rice University School of Architecture. He was born and raised in St. Louis.