U.S. Air Force Academy Campus and Cadet Chapel

US Air Force Academy
Air Force
Air Force Academy

Project Facts
  • Completion Year 1963
  • Design Finish Year 1958
  • Size Building Height: 150 feet Building Gross Area: 54,870
  • Awards
    1964, The R.S. Reynolds Memorial Award, American Institute of Architects (AIA) 1965, Silver Medal of Honor: Design and Craftsmanship, Architectural League of New York 1996, National 25 Year Award, American Institute of Architects (AIA) 1992, 25 Year Award, AIA – Chicago Chapter
  • Collaborators
    Bolt Beranek & Newman Walter Holtkamp
Project Facts
  • Completion Year 1963
  • Design Finish Year 1958
  • Size Building Height: 150 feet Building Gross Area: 54,870
  • Awards
    1964, The R.S. Reynolds Memorial Award, American Institute of Architects (AIA) 1965, Silver Medal of Honor: Design and Craftsmanship, Architectural League of New York 1996, National 25 Year Award, American Institute of Architects (AIA) 1992, 25 Year Award, AIA – Chicago Chapter
  • Collaborators
    Bolt Beranek & Newman Walter Holtkamp

Campus and Landscape

Between 1954 and 1963, SOM brought Modernism out west in the planning and design of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Located near the Rampart Range of the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 6,500 feet, SOM’s Air Force Academy campus achieved a powerful architectural expression that engaged with the rugged landscape and embodied the values and ambitions of the newly established Air Force.

Air Force
© Hedrich Blessing

The layout of the campus is open and asymmetrical, avoiding traditional hierarchies and embodying the ideal of a democratic architecture. The campus’s buildings are simple, horizontal, and appear to float above the ground, raising the architectural elements with the surrounding mountains and emphasizing the structural possibilities of modern construction. As in many of its projects of the era, SOM chose a simple consistent palette of materials: natural aluminum, marble, and glass.

Within this refined Modernist framework, SOM designed the Academy’s administration building, classroom buildings, social center, student housing, dining hall, and physical education building, as well as a series of courtyards and plazas that knit together the buildings and contrast with the irregular patterns of the landscape.

Air Force
© Hedrich Blessing
Air Force
© Hedrich Blessing

The Cadet Chapel

The culminating element of the Air Force Academy’s design is the Cadet Chapel. In stark contrast to the low, rectilinear forms of the rest of the campus, this monumental building features a succession of 17 glass-and-aluminum spires – each composed of 100 tetrahedrons – that reach upward as if to pierce the sky. Continuous panels of brilliant stained glass clad the tubular tetrahedrons, enabling diffused light to enter the building. The result is a structure that has become a powerful symbol of the Air Force and an enduring example of the expressive possibilities of Modernist architecture.

Air Force
© Hedrich Blessing

Standing 150 feet tall, the building rises above the rest of the campus on a podium located adjacent to the Court of Honor. The program required three distinct chapels: a 900-seat Protestant chapel, a 500-seat Catholic chapel, and a 100-seat Jewish chapel, each with a separate entrance. The main floor Protestant chapel is enclosed by tetrahedrons clad in extruded aluminum separated by continuous colored glass panels, with windows of special laminated glass. The terrace-level Catholic chapel is characterized by precast masonry forming the ceiling pattern, with side walls of amber glass and strip windows of faceted glass. The Jewish chapel is a circular room enclosed in cypress frames and stained-glass slabs, with a foyer of brown Jerusalem stone donated by the Israeli Air Force.

In 1996, the Cadet Chapel received the prestigious Twenty-five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects.

Air Force Academy
© Nick Merrick | Hedrich Blessing
Air Force
© Balthazar Zorab

Polaris Hall

More recently, SOM revisited the campus—now a National Historic Landmark District—to design a home for the newly created Center for Character & Leadership Development. Named Polaris Hall, the building’s most prominent feature, a 105-foot-tall skylight, symbolically serves as a navigation aid and as a reminder of the Academy’s core values. Shaped like an aircraft tailfin, this glass-enclosed structure precisely aligns with the North Star. The skylight also provides ample natural light for the Honor Board Room below. Classrooms and offices ring two adjacent courtyards, maximizing exterior views and minimizing the need for artificial lighting. The building’s many sustainable features have earned it LEED®-NC Gold certification