Walter Netsch, the longtime Skidmore, Owings & Merrill giant and former Park District commissioner, died yesterday at 88. Blair Kamin has an obit; Lee Bey recommends his oral history from the AIC’s great collection. As far as I know these things I think the consensus is that his greatest work is the Air Force Academy chapel, which is indeed stunning (his early Inland Steel building is also well-regarded).
But I will earnestly and honestly defend his often-maligned Regenstein Library, where I passed many hours (the chairs next to the windows on the north end of the first floor are a great place to sleep). There’s a tendency for libraries to be delicate, ornate, welcoming, etc. The Reg is none of those things; it’s a massive, geometrically complex bunker that looks even bigger than it is and like it doesn’t like you.
With one caveat–it’s welcoming in the sense that it looks like a place you could ride out nuclear apocalypse. Not coincidentally, the threat of nuclear apocalypse really started with Fermi’s first chain reaction, which took place under the stadium that the library replaced. I think I remember reading that Netsch was influenced by the nuclear reactor Fermi built; looking at it, it’d make sense.
You might not guess it from looking at the Reg, which does look cold and intimidating, but it gets used. Criticized, yes, but U. of C. students burn away the hours there, and my wholly unsupported-by-evidence theory is that it’s secretly beloved by students because it’s hard, dark, and complex, which compliments the U. of C. student self-image.
Not to mention the fact that its Fermi-inspired design and historical lineage gives it gravitas. If the cathedral-like Harper Library suggests the abstract transcendence of study, the Reg is a reminder of the tangible power of knowledge and higher education, for good and ill. On the campus that brought you Paul Wolfowitz, David Brooks, Ahmed Chalabi, and John Aschcroft, not to mention nuclear war, the Chicago Boys, and some of America’s earliest and most, um, “successful” urban renewal, it’s a ballsy and not-trivial architectural statement.