U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Aaron Betsky U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.

I love the American campus and will take any opportunity to experience a good one. One of the pleasures of being part of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture is living and working in a campus that is a model for how communities in the United States could be built. Another one of the advantages is the rhythm of road trips that are built into our academic calendar twice a year: once in October, when we move from Spring Green, Wisc., to Scottsdale, Ariz., and once in May, when we move back. Wright himself used to lead a caravan in his Cherokee red convertible, but these days things are a bit looser. I made the trip a bit late, after the Venice Biennale, and too quickly to really play tourist, but, with my brilliant summer research assistant, Richard Quittenton, to share the ride, we did stop at a few highlights along the way.

U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Aaron Betsky U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.

In particular, I wanted to compare Taliesin and Taliesin West with a few other campuses along the way, and we wound up stopping at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Drake University in Des Moines, and the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Each experience offered a different perspective on how to make that most American (though developed first in England) of types, the academic campus.

U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Aaron Betsky U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.

I had visited the Air Force Academy—which was finished in 1963 to designs overseen by Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)—many decades ago, when you could still wander along the grid of the Parade Ground, feeling rebellious because you were not following the lines. Those white demarcations not only blocked out the horizontal planes, but also lined up with what I could only think of as military precision with the columns of the surroundings dormitories and class room buildings. They went on to echo in the divisions of each façade into compositions of columns, lintels, and windows that SOM was for years the master at laying out over office buildings around the world. This was a definite vision of America, where the military-industrial complex came together with the image of our corporate bureaucracy to stand against the Rocky Mountains with all the splendor and might that embodied the optimism of the United States in the post-War era.

U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Aaron Betsky U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.

It still looked like that way to me today, though I was more attuned to the contributions the great landscape architect Dan Kiley made to the success of that whole, while only being able to gaze down at the main area from a higher level due to crowd control and security concerns. The other feature I enjoyed more was the Cadet Chapel, whose abstract lattice of airplane wings turned into interlocking trusses had struck me as gimmicky back then, but now seemed like an appropriate melding of mountain and technology into a space suffused with soft light. All together, this is a campus that is singular in intent, but complex in pieces. Few collections of buildings I can think of in the last hundred years have made better use of a spectacular site to expose in a didactic manner both an aesthetic and a spatial and construction logic that so clearly represent the institution they house.

Watch the video below for further explanation of the U.S. Air Force Academy:


Drake University's campus is another matter. The first building Eliel Saarinen designed there, Harvey Ingham Hall of Science Center, in 1949, offered a streamlined and rationalized version of a traditional campus structure. It was perhaps what had been hiding underneath all those neo-Gothic facades, and was now liberated by new attitudes towards education and architecture. It was the second set of buildings, an academic quad built around a ravine and completed by Eliel’s son Eero Saarinen in 1955 after he took over the office, that is most remarkable. Three dormitories, constructed out of tilt-up concrete H-panels, surround a green void. They are offset one from the other, but they are identical in lay-out and all originally housed only women students. A two-story entry pavilion and social space fronts each slab. Bridges connect them to a dining pavilion that closes the fourth side. This is a place of a piece, or of several interlocking pieces.

Drake University campus, Des Moines
Aaron Betsky Drake University campus, Des Moines

The simplicity of the structures is belied by the complexity of the detail. Each floor is a signed with a metal flange, creating a shadow line that emphasizes the four-story buildings’ horizontal dimension, while making the brick panels—which alternate with the floor-to-ceiling window assemblies with their operable middle panes—appear to float. The social spaces are cubes in which vertical stacks of windows with large, recessed panes, white stucco panels, and brick walls rotate around to both contain and open two-story rooms that you tumble into from a higher entry level. That composition then continues in the dining hall, a structure that once accommodated 400 students eating at the same time. Floating on and between all this are those bridges and fire escapes, constructed out of white-painted metal rods, tubes, and flanges in a way that predates the High Tech experiments of two decades later.

The big idea here is to not have one big space or form, or even an enclosed and inward-looking quad. Rather, every element, from the brick panels and the steel flanges to the overall assembly of buildings, is held in tension. Taut and suspended over the landscape, this campus is a prototype for a new world, in which rational and simple elements together will create a university and some day a world of openness, free relations, generous spaces of sociality, and rational retreats. Using the same general aesthetic as the Air Force Academy, it arrived at the reverse model for the American campus.

Drake University campus, Des Moines
Aaron Betsky Drake University campus, Des Moines

The Drake structures are in decent shape, though most of their interiors (including a Stuart Davis mural in the dining hall), have long since disappeared. What has been built around and onto them is of decidedly lesser quality. Yet this kernel of a campus remains as a model of what could be an American community and one from which we have much to learn.

The Drake University masterplan can be seen below:

Next stop, Iowa City.