Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 13, 2012

Colorado: The Chapel

Now, class, if you’ll turn to the Colorado page in your atlases, you’ll see that the state forms a rectangle. The Rocky Mountains describe a line running generally north-south across the entire state, just left of the Interstate 25. To the left of that line is a vast area of towering mountains, alpine meadows, gold and silver mining towns, wild country, and ancient native settlements.

Colorado Map Google (640x456)

To the right of that line is an arid high plain of sagebrush, grassland and open range.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (red flag, left) is one spectacular example of Colorado’s natural scenery.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Brad Nixon 9657 (640x480)

The state capitol and largest city, Denver, is on the dividing line, slightly north of center, with enough flat land to the east to build a large airport, so that visitors can conveniently fly into the state and start touring.

Much of Colorado’s appeal to visitors is its extensive mountains and wild lands, but there is much more to see. An hour an half drive south from Denver takes one to Colorado Springs, at the foot of Pike’s Peak (red circle).

Pike's Peak Brad Nixon

After WWII, what had been the U.S. Army Air Corps was transformed into a full-fledged portion of the U.S. armed services, the U.S. Air Force. It was determined that there should be a training academy for officers of the Air Force, as there was for the Army and Navy at West Point and Annapolis, respectively.

A New Academy

The architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill got the contract to design an extensive campus on an 18,500 acre site at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, north of Colorado Springs. The campus is an icon of international modern style, and spreads out in an open plan (click on photos for larger images).

Air Force Academy Brad Nixon 0090 (640x418)

Situated above the major academic and social buildings is the iconic (and, when it debuted in 1962, controversial) Cadet Chapel, designed by architect Walter Nesch.

Cadet Chapel Brad Nixon 300 0085 680

The structure gained great notoriety, which I recall from my early childhood. Dad and I visited it beneath a nearly cloudless western sky, its 17 spires soaring upward. The Chapel symbolizes flight with the delta-wing shapes of the spires, and, at the same time, evokes a thousand years of western ecclesiastical architecture in the way those spires are supported outside the interior space, like the flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals.

Cadet Chapel Brad Nixon 300 0089 680

The entrance is at once imposing but also draws the visitor toward it, upward, to the elevated main sanctuary.

Academy Chapel Brad Nixon 300 0091 680

Thanks to that structural approach, pioneered by Gothic architects, the interior of the main space is a single, open area.

Air Force Cadet Chapel Brad Nixon 0101 (640x480)

As you can see, the sanctuary shares an important attribute with the greatest Gothic structures: the way it controls the flow of light as an integral part of the design. That doesn’t happen by accident; it’s a hallmark of careful planning by the architect. There are some colored translucent panels, but there are also a large number of transparent panels. On the left side of the nave, these permit views out to the mountainside, which makes a wonderful blend of inside/outside.

Below, a detail of Dad photographing the “flying buttress” superstructure, in which one can see the level of the main sanctuary, above, and, below, the lower level that holds a series of smaller chapels suited for specific religious denominations.

Air Force Cadet Chapel Brad Nixon 0093 (640x480)

The Chapel outlived its initial problematic reception to become a symbol of many things, including the ability of mankind to suggest something that is greater than steel and stone.

High resolution versions of some photographs of the chapel and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2018


  1. Impressive – having visited many gothic cathedrals over the past few years, I love the modern take on it. The exterior is fantastic. However, the interior leaves me cold – which might just be the single camera angle (I know how difficult it is to get an impression of the inside of a building). It feels small and oppressive, as though the roof is caving in (the ‘bend’ no doubt having something to do with this).


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