While visiting a chapel or any other pious place, we come across its spiritual and religious interaction. We also come across its architectural influence. It rewards us with a surreal experience. Most are familiar with Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel. The Chapel attracts around 800,000 visitors in a year, catching their attention at a first glance.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel by SOM: A Surreal Experience - Sheet1
Cadet Chapel ©Twitter

The SOM Architects were commissioned to design the master plan for the United States Air Force Academy campus, Colorado in 1954 and completed in 1963. The site chosen for the project was at an elevation of 6500 feet on the East of the Rocky Mountains which became the reason for the division of the campus into three different levels which separated the Administrative building, Social center, and Cadet Chapel. Cadet Chapel was placed on the highest level.

The design for the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel wraps traditional elements under the lofty modernist semblance. Walter Netsch, a SOM architect, during his trip to Europe in search of inspiration, encountered the various Gothic and Renaissance Cathedrals which dotted the scenery and incorporated their facets into the Chapel. The form was evolved by playing with law-bound principles of geometry using tetrahedrons on the suggestion of Engineer Ken Nasland and became the most striking feature of the Chapel. It seems to point towards the almighty. 

Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel consists of a succession of seventeen spires stretched to the height of 150 feet each. Originally, Netzsch designed twenty-one spires with a height of 248 feet each, but couldn’t happen due to budget issues. However, he has left the space on the site for the future addition of the four spires. The structure is made by using spires with tubular steel frames of around 100 alike tetrahedrons, each of which weighs 5 tons, is 75 feet long, and is covered with clear aluminum panels. The panels consisted of 6-inch tubes and 4- inch secondary cross-braces which were manufactured in Missouri and were delivered to the site by rail. They have placed a foot apart, creating a gap between them that was filled by using colored glasses. The one-inch thick Italian mosaic had Bauhaus colors that are red, blue, and yellow and was designed by Chartes, France.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel by SOM: A Surreal Experience - Sheet2
Cadet Chapel ©Colorado Springs Gazette

The main entrance to the Chapel is from the South Façade which is reached by granite stairways. A band of gold agonized aluminum doors is seen on the one-story landing and above that a glass wall. The aluminum panels reflect light divergently in various positions of the sun. Hence, the appearance and tone of the Chapel keep on changing during the day.

The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel is a symbolic structure for secularism. It incorporates the three main faiths that are being followed in the United States. It includes the Protestant Chapel, Catholic Chapel, and Jewish Chapel. Each Chapel has a different entrance. Other spaces include two all-faiths rooms and two meeting rooms. The Protestant Chapel is placed on the upper level while Catholic Chapel, Jewish Chapel, and one all-faith room are on the level below it. The meeting rooms and the larger all-faiths room is positioned on another level below.

The largest of all the three Chapels is the Protestant Chapel with 1200 seats. It is 64 x 168 feet in size with the nave being 92 feet tall at the highest peak. The colored ribbons formed by glass panels in the gaps between the tetrahedrons illuminate the space as we move towards the altar.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel by SOM: A Surreal Experience - Sheet3
Cadet Chapel ©Wallpaperflare

The Catholic church is of Romanesque style of architecture, consisting of stoneworks, windows, and arches. It can seat around 500 people. Prefabricated masonry and glass faceted amber have been used for the construction. A glass mosaic mural designed by Lumen Martin Winter that symbolizes the sky is placed on the altar.

The Jewish Chapel is enclosed in a circular wooden and glass screen that conceals its structural details. It seats around 100 people. The usage of lobby brownstone, transported from Jerusalem, could be seen.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel by SOM: A Surreal Experience - Sheet4
Cadet Chapel ©Pinterest

The architect wanted to install metal sheet sections known as internal flashing underneath the seams of aluminum skin to stop the penetration of rainwater and melted snow into the Chapel, but the suggestion got dropped due to budget issues. The alternative approach to seal the seams with caulk was taken into action. However, the continuous use of caulk led to some serious damage to the building. The SOM again got commissioned for the restoration on the 50th anniversary of the Chapel. In the restoration process, the metal sheet got replaced by the silicone sheet. After many delays, the work for restoration has started and will take about four years to complete. During this period, the Chapel will remain closed.

From winning AIA Twenty Five Year Award in 1996 to being named United States National Historic Landmark in 2004, Cadet Chapel has remained an icon of beautiful amalgamation of religion as well as modern architecture as it continues to thrive limitlessly.

Cadet Chapel ©Vadzar – blogger

Aarushi is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in architecture. She believeslife is about exploringand experiencing the beautiful world around us. She finds solace in penning down her thoughts. She wants to ‘malgudi’ng her way through every aspect of architecture.

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