By Ray Mark Rinaldi
The new Center for Character & Leadership Development is one of the most important pieces of architecture to go up in Colorado — perhaps, in the entire West — in decades. That’s bold praise, but not less than this assertive building deserves; it rises with precision and purity, with shrewd sensitivity to its circumstances and with an abundant belief in the power of design to inspire great action.
From a distance, the building resembles the tail of a jet floating above its home, the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. But the shape is more than some post-modern folly, an obvious gimmick meant to get attention for the center.
It is, rather, a marvelously engineered, steel-and-glass skylight that stretches 105 feet into the air, perfectly aligned with the axis of the North Star, the navigational standard used by sailors and aviators since the beginning of travel.
And it is functional, not symbolic, reminding cadets who come to the center of their place in both military history and the universe as a whole.
“This is the number one program here,” said Thomas J. Berry, the center’s deputy director. “Everything we do at the academy evolved around character and leadership development. It is woven into everything.“
The 45,000-square-foot, U-shaped center is basically one floor despite the height of its pop-up ceiling (roughly equal to a 10-story building) and it was placed in the middle of the campus with great care. The academy’s 18,000-acre site is a revered bit of modern and landscape architecture and an official National Historic Landmark, and it hasn’t been ruined by expansion over the years. The character center sits across a plaza from one of the most recognized buildings in the country, the U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel with its distinctive aluminum spires.
The new building serves multiple purposes. It’s a giant classroom of sorts and a high-tech conference center, and place where cadets are schooled, from day one, to fine-tune their personal and professional ethics and abide by the academy’s code of honor: “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” It also houses the honor courtroom, where cadets accused of disobeying the pledge are called to answer charges.
The defendants sit in a solitary chair at the end of a board room table, placed at the base of the skylight. If they raise their heads slightly, they have a direct site line, all the way up along the tall glass structure, and then through an oculus at the top, that points directly to Polaris. It’s a dramatic setting to say the least.
The hearing room gets its rules from the past, but it gets its soul from its contemporary design. The weight of world sits on the shoulders of the accused, unmistakably, but there’s also a visible path skyward and toward a hopeful redemption, via the same star that has guided the wayward for thousands of years. The Air Force used to employ its code to punish cadets, but lately, “there’s been real emphasis on making the code something that helps people actually reach the goal of honorable living,” said Ret. Gen. Christopher D. Miller, who consults at the center, to a place “where they rethink and rededicate themselves.”
The courtroom serves as the humanist core for a building that was dropped into a campus with dozens of structures and still manages to have a unique personality, thanks to a series of “secular notable things, not to overshadow the spiritual notable thing called the chapel,” according to lead designer Roger Duffy, of the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
SOM’s legendary Walter Netsch designed the original campus back in the 1950s and the academy turned to the firm for this latest addition. In an unusual move, it set up a competition between SOM’s offices in San Francisco, New York and Chicago. Each branch worked independently and presented their ideas to a review panel which selected
“What we were trying to do was to build something modern and representative of the needs of today but also to reflect back on the architectural heritage of the academy,” said Academy Architect Duane Boyle,” who coordinated the effort.
That’s what the New York office provided. The new structure follows the straight lines of the campus, preserves crucial sight lines and adheres to the original grid Netsch developed as a master plan at the start. It references original materials found around campus, including colorful Murano glass tiles that line the entry walls. The granite for the main exterior stairs was cut from the same quarry used for the chapel years ago.
At the same time, it is outfitted with state-of-the art conferencing tools that allow idea sharing through video across the globe. The center can accommodate everything from outside corporations who want to rent the space for leadership conferences to cadets learning the basics of war games.
It is energy efficiency at every turn. The skylight doubles as a chimney that vents heat in the summer. Another feature is an oversized chandelier in the large meeting hall that is made only of mirrors. Rather than being electrified, it illuminates the room by simply reflecting a series of high-output LED lights set around the perimeter of the ceiling that also illuminates the skylight at night.
More than that, the center is full of the simple elegance of modern architecture. Glass walls open up and connect spaces and create a sense of transparency, a purposeful move for a branch of the military that is known more for secrecy. The overall design doesn’t hide its engineering; most of the beams and buttresses are exposed architectural steel, which required about four miles of hand-welding to finesse. The skylight relies on a web of steel members which vary in width and depth to give the whole structure a fluid, sculptural feel.
Such grace doesn’t come cheap — the building cost about $46 million — but the academy came up with a clever way to pay for it. Government money financed the basic structure, though extras, such as the towering skylight and the finer finishes were covered with private contributions. In all, about $18 million came from donations.
The public-private collaboration is a tool the academy is using strategically these days. Donors recently helped upgrade athletic facilities and are now covering costs of a planned renovation of the on-site planetarium. The chapel lures between 500,000 and 1million tourists each year and the academy wants more people to visit its home. The new construction, which will include an inviting visitor center near the main entrance, will give them more to see and do on the site.
The private money — from alumni or fans of what the academy does for the 4,000 cadets it offers a college education to each year — enables the institution to operate more like a typical university. It doesn’t have to worry so much about bureaucracy, or bureaucrats who are ultra-careful with government money.
In the case of the Center for Character & Leadership Development, it also allowed the academy to be a leader itself — in the way it educates students, the resource it can be for the community, in the field of design and in preserving Colorado history.
“We really pushed the envelope on this building and its been good for us,” said Boyle. It’s let us see the possibility of doing things that we never saw before,” said Boyle.