Air age acropolis made with Aries in mind

High in the Rocky Mountains, Jonathan Glancey admires the bellicose beauty of the US Air Force Academy
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Reviewers talk of books landing on their desks. Modernism at Mid- Century: the architecture of the United States Air Force Academy (ed Robert Bruegmann, Chicago University Press) did exactly that, dropping from the postboy's hands at 24in above desk level and ploughing into a guilt pile of unread books, not to be seen again for the next six months.

Excavating my desk over the weekend, Modernism at Mid-Century took flight again, climbing, full-power, after-burners on, from the base camp to the summit of my scale mountain range of books for review. How could I have let it sit unattended for so long?

Modernism at Mid-Century is an inspiring monograph of one of the greatest, yet by and large ignored, building complexes of the Cold War era - the United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, sited at 6,000-9,000ft above sea level in the Rocky Mountains and built between 1954 and 1962.

This magnificent, if spartan, academy has not been ignored by the American public (a million people visit each year), yet has featured in notably few studies of post-war American architecture. Perhaps this is because liberal or pacifist authors have taken against its bellicose purpose. Or perhaps it is because the architecture it represents - austere, regimented, clear-cut, exclusive - has long been out of fashion.

I remember visiting the academy some years ago and should have cashiered myself on the spot for not taking camera or sketchbook. For here is an acropolis of our times, a complete city built in the mountains, yet remote from normal life. A uniform city of crisp Bauhaus-inspired buildings built almost entirely on a module of seven feet (this module multiplied many times to create relentless and mesmeric structures), immaculately constructed, intelligently detailed and inhabited exclusively by men (and, since 1976, by women) in the crispest of uniforms. Dress uniforms were designed by Cecil B DeMille; yes, that Cecil B DeMille.

Below and above the vast parade squares, generations of jet fighters from Super Sabres to Tomcats have taken off into crystal clear skies. There is perhaps nowhere else in the world where nature, architecture, technology and human activity are balanced in such ungiving equipoise.

The remarkable thing is that so little has changed here in 33 years. The academy is justifiably proud of this extraordinary place designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), fitted and furnished by Walter Dorwin Teague (the New York industrial designers) and laid out by Dan Kline, the landscape artist who began his career in a rather bizarre way, designing courtrooms for the Nuremberg trials. The academy was USAF's bid to create an identity separate and different from those of the US army and US navy, whose officer training academies at West Point and Annapolis reflected traditional military and architectural virtues and obsessions.

The SOM design (principally the work of Walter Netsch (who is interviewed at length in the book) was chosen from among 300 submitted by the cream of American architects. Frank Lloyd Wright, who expected the commission to land on his plate, dismissed SOM's proposal, apogee of the International Style, as a "factory for birdmen".

It was much more than Wright's sally implied. Inspired by vast and brand new Modern Movement building complexes such as the El Panama Hotel in Panama City (by Edward Durrell Stone) and the General Motors Technical Center at Warren, Michigan (Eero Saarinen), the academy was nothing less than the "Air Age Acropolis" - as described by Architectural Forum - at the time of its completion.

The air age acropolis produced buildings whose skins were stretched tightly over their supporting skeletons, whose beauty lay in their austerity (something very different from cheapness or meanness), grouping and setting.

That these are buildings of quality should never be in doubt. There were rarely fewer than 350 architects at work on the project; between them they produced 60,000 drawings. Meanwhile, 32 designers at Walter Dorwin Teague, in studios in New York and Colorado, invested 94,075 working hours in the shaping of study and bedroom interiors, coffee sets and shoeshine stands (an essential accessory for the air force cadet on parade). Everything, down to the last detail, was designed as part of a greater whole. Here was modular design at its most relevant and effective. Like SOM's architecture, Teague's furniture and fittings have stood the test of time.

Of course, an academy such as this will not be to everyone's taste, but prejudice against and fear of the military (officers trained here would have as happily invaded Cuba in1961 as dropped nuclear bombs on Eastern bloc targets) are the likely stumbling blocks to acceptance and not the architecture itself.

Surely very few people can fail to be moved by the astonishing multidenominational chapel: 17 bays of aluminium-clad tetrahedrons separated by strips of coloured glass pointing into the sky like jet fighters at full tilt. The form of this air age Gothic chapel, described by detractors as an assembly of "paganistic wigwams", was famously dreamt up by the architect folding a piece of paper at a meeting (was he exploring the art of origami, or making a paper plane to launch at a colleague?). It is, quite simply, beautiful and, like Le Corbusier's pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamps, appears to enjoy universal appeal.

And who will not thrill to the setting here in the foothills of the Rockies, a landscape laced with Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine, juniper, scrub oak, mountain mahogany and prickly pear. Under the trees, the landscape is painted the yellow of tickseed, the blue of anemones and the red of Indian paintbrush. In the clear skies falcons appear to hunt in the wake of Air Force jets.

You may remain adamantly unimpressed, but I have talked myself into wanting to jet back to Colorado. The United States Air Force Academy has landed.