Walter Netsch, an irascible architect who remained in the news decades after retiring from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), died at his Chicago home in mid-June at the age of 88. The cause of death was pneumonia, said his wife, Dawn Clark Netsch. He was the last of a small generation of Chicago iconoclasts - including Bertrand Goldberg and Harry Weese - whose work ran counter to the city's drab corporate designs dominated by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his modernist disciples.
Born in 1920 on Chicago's South Side to a meatpacker father and a mother whose lineage traced back to the Mayflower, Netsch's first architectural design was an opera house for his sister's dolls. He received his architectural degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1943 and joined SOM, where he would eventually rise to partner, in 1947.
Netsch provided the original concept for Chicago's much-lauded Inland Steel Building, a free-span structure that pioneered the use of stainless steel in architectural applications. As originally conceived, the exterior curtain wall would have been a double-wall, glass-enclosed plenum for HVAC. "It would have been an early Richard Rogers building, long before [Rogers] ever put pipes out front," Netsch said in an Art Institute of Chicago oral history. His built designs included entire campuses for the Air Force Academy and the University of Illinois at Chicago as well as many individual educational buildings, including libraries at Northwestern and the University of Chicago.
Before retiring from SOM in 1979, Netsch developed his Field Theory to create complex geometries and forms. He built a brick cube of a townhouse to demonstrate these ideas and to house his extensive collection of contemporary art, which included works by Robert Motherwell, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, and other prominent American artists of the postwar period.
During the 1980s, Netsch served as board president of the Chicago Park District for several years. His wife is a lawyer long active in Illinois Democratic politics; in 1990 she was elected state comptroller but was unsuccessful in her 1994 bid for the governorship. The couple sold several of their most prominent art pieces to retire her campaign debts.
Netsch's decades-long health problems were well known and the source of his recent battles with the State of Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation over the status of his license as an architect. Since March 2007, the state department's website had listed Netsch's license as "Not Renewed" after he failed to complete required continuing education units during the previous two-year period. This April, a Cook County Circuit Court judge ruled against the state in a suit brought by the designer, and his status was revised to "Active," allowing Netsch to call himself an architect again.
Although ailing from the pneumonia to which he would eventually succumb, Netsch took time just two weeks before his death to talk with ARCHITECT about those licensure issues. "I thought it was ridiculous," he said of the process, pointing out that he wanted to legally call himself an architect while stipulating that he would never practice unless associated with someone who met the current criteria. Netsch rejected the option, chosen by some older Illinois architects who have faced a similar situation, to accept a status of "Architect?Retired," which would not have allowed him to practice.