Perfect Alignment: US Air Force Academy Polaris Hall

Every detail of the Air Force Academy's Polaris Hall aligns purposefully with the North Star and with its function as the home of the Center for Character and Leadership Development. It leads in architectural and environmental design too. Find a bonus gallery of images here.

usafa polaris hall
US Air Force Academy Polaris Hall. Photo by Bryan Oller

Looking toward the Air Force Academy, you’ve likely notice a slanted tower that looks like the tail of an airplane rising from the Cadet Area. There’s a running debate: Is it modeled after a B-52 or an F-16? Turns out, neither. “An airplane tail was never part of the discussion on the design of the tower,” says Duane Boyle, Academy architect, about Polaris Hall.

Instead, architects at the prestigious firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill had a laser focus elsewhere-much like the building itself. The strikingly Modernist, 105-foot glass-and-steel tower of Polaris Hall is angled in precise alignment with the North Star. Opened in 2016 as home to the Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development (CCLD), every detail of the building’s form aligns purposefully with its function. Integrated with all aspects of Academy life, the CCLD mission is to develop leaders of character who will serve society as Air Force officers. Chris Luedtke, director of CCLD, describes Polaris Hall as a “purpose-built facility that represents everything we stand for at the institution.”

Cadets cycle regularly through Polaris Hall during their four years for leadership seminars, classes and ethics discussions. The emphasis on integrity and character is nowhere more evident than in the heart of the building, seated at the head of the long table in the Honor Board Room. It’s in this chair a cadet sits to be questioned by the panel of fellow cadets on the Honor Board. Prominent on the facing wall is the cadet Honor Code: “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” To the sides are gallery seating for witnesses. Overhead, the ceiling angles toward a circular skylight, or oculus, perfectly centered on a view of the North Star-and a reminder that it’s ever present, day or night. “The North Star has historically been a navigation tool, and you can take that one step further: How do you navigate through your life making good character and leadership decisions?” Boyle says. “It’s also unwavering, which character and leadership should be also.”

You can feel the gravitas simply sitting in that seat. “The idea is if they fall short, we ask: Can they learn from this? Can they develop from this? … Can they be an even better officer because of that failure?” Luedtke says.

looking up inside of tower in usafa polaris hall
Sculpture or lighting? Both. Photo by Bryan Oller.

Beyond the board room, both form and function are impressive. Glass walls and the 966 panels of the tower surround the 200-seat forum and 10 state-of-the-art collaboration rooms; the openness represents transparency and a cooperative academic environment. The tower serves as a chimney to exhaust heat, but to prevent an excessive build-up of heat and glare, a graduated ceramic frit covers the lower portion of the glass tower to serve as a high-tech, translucent shade. A hanging mirrored sculpture above the forum provides an artistic reflector for interior lighting. The exposed, structural steel buttresses are completely smooth where they are visible, thanks to a specialized hand-welding technique. Many such unique touches were funded by private donors. The building earned LEED Gold designation.

From its inception, the Air Force Academy has placed a priority on leading Modern architecture. Boyle calls it a national asset architecturally, and he likens the campus with the new Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, a National Historic Landmark like the Academy. “We wanted the building to be all about leadership, not only in the programs it housed, but leadership in architecture and also leadership in energy and environmental design,” Boyle says.

Mission accomplished.


If You Go

Polaris Hall is not open to visitors, however, it’s exterior is easily visible in the Cadet Area. Find information on visiting the Air Force Academy here.

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