Maverick architect Netsch frustrated, delighted users

Walter Netsch, the maverick, strong-willed Chicago architect whose geometrically complex buildings, including the University of Illinois at Chicago campus and the U.S. Air Force Academy chapel in Colorado, departed from glass-box orthodoxy and both delighted and frustrated their users, died Sunday at his home in Chicago.

He was 88. Netsch served as a controversial Chicago Park District board president under the late Mayor Harold Washington and later drew widespread notice as the husband of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch.

The cause of death was pneumonia, his wife said Sunday.

Netsch spent nearly all of his career in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), where he concentrated on prominent institutional projects, including his often-criticized master plan and buildings for the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois.

There, in particular, Netsch's buildings and urban spaces proved difficult to use and were vilified or even destroyed.

Yet many scholars now argue that his body of work represents a significant break from the boxy modernism of the 1950s and 1960s and anticipated the unorthodox, computer-generated shapes of such contemporary architects as Peter Eisenman of New York City and Frank Gehry of Los Angeles.

“He was one of those creative figures of the 1960s who broke the mold and paved the way for a younger generation to follow,” said John Zukowsky, former chief architecture curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and now chief curator of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.