Wings and Prayers

One of the must-sees on a visit to Colorado Springs is the campus of the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). Besides a training ground for our future servicemen and women, the Academy hosts a high school, an airfield, two golf courses, and a cohesive campus of modernist buildings spread across 18,500 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front Range. But one structure stands prouder and taller than anything else on the property. Welcome to the USAFA Cadet Chapel.

USAFA Cadet Chapel

If you’re following my blog posts on architecture (as I complete my LEGO Fallingwater model), you’ll recall Thorncrown Chapel from a few weeks back.  The USAFA Cadet Chapel is a much bolder animal, dominating the academy campus skyline and easy to see from miles around.  Instead of Thorncrown’s wood and glass, the Cadet Chapel boasts an impressive open structural steel frame, married with tall triangular stained glass windows.  The main sanctuary is big enough to seat 1,200 (or about 25% of the USAFA student body); more like a church than a chapel.  Frankly, the only thing the Cadet Chapel has in common with Thorncrown is its design inspiration: France’s Sainte-Chapelle.

Fighter jets all in a row?

The distinctive feature of the USAFA Cadet Chapel is its seventeen spires, marching from one end of the building to the other.  The bold design, by architect Walter Netsche, took a little getting used to when the doors opened in 1962.  Visitors described the structure as a giant accordion made of triangles.  I describe it, more fittingly, as a series of fighter jets standing on their tails.

If you haven’t visited the Cadet Chapel you probably don’t know its biggest secret.  It’s a chapel for all faiths.  The main sanctuary is just the top floor of a multi-level structure.  Hidden below, you’ll find individual chapels for Catholics (500 seats), Jews (100 seats), Muslims, and Buddhists.  You’ll even find two “all-faiths rooms” and an outdoor area for “Earth-Centered Spirituality” (reserved for you Pagans and Druids).  It’s safe to say your acceptance into the Academy has nothing to do with who or how you choose to worship.

USAFA Catholic chapel (lower level)

The Cadet Chapel is a structural marvel, assembled from precisely one hundred prefabricated tetrahedral panels.  Over the years its popularity has grown to where it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004.  That’s the good news.  Now for the bad.  The original design called for a series of gutters to transfer water away from the building, instead of streaming directly down its panels.  But the gutters were scrapped due to budget constraints…

Mistake.

Sixty years of caulking and recaulking leaks finally forced the Academy to close the chapel for remodeling in 2019.  Now for the really bad news… they’re still not finished with the repairs.  In fact, you won’t be able to walk through the doors for another four years.  What’s taking so long?  Adding all those gutters, the ones that were supposed to be there in the first place.

The Cadet Chapel is “boxed” until 2027

One more bit of bad news (the fighter jets are really nosediving).  Getting construction workers to the tops of the chapel spires meant building an entire hangar-like structure around the chapel.  No joke – they put the whole building in a box.  In other words, not only can you not walk through the doors, you can’t even see the Cadet Chapel today.  Trust me, absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Mark your calendar for 2027, because you really need to see the USAFA Cadet Chapel.  It’s the only place I know where a (jet) wing and a prayer can be found in the same place.

Now for the latest on LEGO Fallingwater…

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LEGO Fallingwater – Update #4  (Read how this project got started in Perfect Harmony)

I’m starting to wish I’d built Fallingwater before the LEGO Grand Piano, so you’d see me taking on a greater challenge versus the other way around.  30 pages (or 33%, or 118 minutes) into the build, this is what we have:

Pretty much the same as last week.  We added some landscape to the left side (the green/brown pieces), more landscape along the back, and we raised the foundation a little higher up off the water.  We have yet to see any of the distinctive house itself.  Not so adventurous.

What IS adventurous is sifting through 800 tiny pieces.  There’s no logic in how they were bagged (thanks, LEGO!) so I end up just spilling everything out onto the desk, searching for a lot of minutes followed by building for a few minutes.  Tedious?  Heck no, this is a blast.  If “tedious” entered my brain I’d have no business building LEGO models.

LEGO Gamble House by Grant W. Scholbrock

Props to my college buddy Bruce for sharing this photo, an example of a custom LEGO build… and one you can’t buy.  It belongs in a museum if you ask me.  There are pedestrian model builders (yours truly) and then there are professionals.  Way to go, Grant!

Tune in next Thursday as construction continues!  Now for another nod to Frank Lloyd Wright…

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

I’m not a big fan of museums.  Maybe that’s because, as Frank Lloyd Wright said, a lot of them look like “Protestant barns”.  No wonder New York City’s Guggenheim Museum is radically different.  When Wright set out to design it in 1943 he vowed to “make the building and the paintings a symphony such as never existed before in the World of Art”.

I can’t describe “The Goog” any better than the website of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.  Their words: “… a white ribbon curled into a cylindrical stack that grows continuously wider as it spirals upwards towards a glass ceiling.” In other words, you the visitor climb in circles ever-ascending, enjoying the art as you go.  The Guggenheim was the first museum design where the “physical home” played an important role in the experience of the art itself.  If you’ve ever been to a museum that deserves a similar description, you have the Guggenheim to thank.

LEGO Guggenheim

In closing I ask, is the Goog significant enough to earn a spot in the LEGO Architecture series of models?  Why yes, it is!

Some content sourced from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation website, and  Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Crowned Jewel

A little south and a little west of our downtown proper, you’ll find a wide street with stately old homes. The homes sit to the back of their properties, playing second fiddle to lines of majestic oak trees closer to the street. Overhead, the tree branches are densely intertwined, barely allowing the sun to peek through, creating a cozy, comforting canopy as you drive through. It’s a look that could’ve inspired the design of Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Thorncrown Chapel

When I gushed about Fallingwater in last week’s Perfect Harmony, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit some of my favorite American architecture as I share the adventure of my LEGO model build.  Were it not for my architecture degree in college I probably wouldn’t be aware of these beautiful structures.  Instead, all these years later I can recall my favorites from memory.  They’re a diverse bunch but I think they exemplify almost-perfect spaces, thanks to the work of the architect behind the scenes.

Thorncrown Chapel is an appropriate choice to lead off my list.  Just like Fallingwater, the chapel’s intent is to bring the outside in so that worship (or weddings, or any other celebration) feels as if you’re one with nature, yet with the conveniences and comfort of an enclosed space.  Thorncrown was built in 1980 (by coincidence, my freshman year of college).  Its architect, E. Fay Jones, turned a childhood interest in treehouses into a decorated career, including an apprenticeship under Frank Lloyd Wright.  Fay Jones’ designs “focused primarily on the intimate rather than the grandiose“.  Hence, chapels.

As a disciple of Wright (and the only one to win the American Institute of Architect’s [AIA] prestigious Gold Medal), it’s no surprise Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel design is reminiscent of Wright’s Prairie School houses, with its broad overhanging eaves, horizontal lines,  and deliberate integration with the landscape.  Thorncrown contains 425 individual windows.  Those with stained glass bring in so much colored light the chapel’s interior is often described as “jewel-like”.

As with Fallingwater, Thorncrown is constructed of organic materials, including Southern pine and flagstone from the surrounding area.  The chapel seats 100 and is non-denominational, intended more for meditation for those who make the pilgrimage to Eureka Springs (in other words, go see it!)  For all of the beautiful structures you’ll find in America over the last forty years, the AIA has given Thorncrown the distinction of “best American building constructed since 1980”. 

Sainte-Chapelle

Despite my longtime familiarity with Thorncrown, I never thought to wonder how it got its name.  Turns out, Thorncrown’s design was not only inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright but also by Sainte-Chapelle, the Gothic church in Paris, France.  And at some point in its history, Sainte-Chapelle supposedly housed the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ.

If your wanderings ever bring you to the northwest corner of Arkansas, take time to visit this crowned jewel of a chapel.  Whether it strikes you as a treehouse or a miniature cathedral, being in church will never feel so comforting and cozy.

Now then, let’s turn our attention to (LEGO) Fallingwater, shall we?

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Fallingwater – Update #1

As with the LEGO Grand Piano, the first step in the build is to simply open the box and assess the contents.  Here’s what is immediately apparent about the LEGO Fallingwater model:

  1. The finished product will look much more like LEGO than the Grand Piano looks like a miniature piano.  I can’t pinpoint the date LEGO first produced its Fallingwater model but it must’ve been years before the Grand Piano, with pieces more in line with basic LEGO blocks.  I mean, check out the photo below.  Would you believe this inventory of boring little pieces comes together as a house over a waterfall?
  2. The Fallingwater model will be completed much faster than the Grand Piano.  The design is intricate, yes, and we’re still talking about thousands of pieces, but the instruction manual hints at a much easier assembly.  I won’t have those heartstopping moments like I did with the Piano, where I realized I’d built a section backwards.  (Then again, my LEGO-building confidence may be getting the best of me.)
  3. The Piano was interesting to look at even as it was coming together.  Fallingwater… not so much.  Under construction it’ll look like haphazard piles of LEGO bricks.  Not exactly riveting to you the reader.  Instead, as I did with the Piano and classical music, I’ll cover a few of Frank Lloyd Wright’s other designs, so you gain a better appreciation for the diversity of his life’s work.

Next week, “groundbreaking”!

Some content sourced from the official Thorncrown website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.