It is not often that an Omaha architect is featured in The New York Times and Architectural Digest, but the reputation of Neil Astle is noteworthy for much more than mere publication clippings. His local homes and buildings remain architectural treasures in the Omaha metro.
Daniel Naegele, associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University and co-author of the soon-to-be-published Astle & Omaha, says his buildings are “highlights of architecture.” Bruce Wrightsman, assistant professor of architecture at Kansas State University and the other co-author adds, “Astle had a profound effect upon architecture in the state of Nebraska.”
In 2008, Astle was posthumously awarded the Harry F. Cunningham Gold Medal for Architectural Excellence in the State of Nebraska—the highest honor that the regional chapter of the American Institute of Architects can bestow in recognition of distinguished architectural achievement. This path to praise was laid in a dedication to material detailing and modernist ideologies.
Astle was born in Salt Lake City in 1933 and earned a degree in architecture from the University of Utah in 1958. The next year, he earned a Master of Architecture and Planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The department was then chaired by Pietro Belluschi, designer of many high-profile buildings, including the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building in New York City. At MIT, Naegele says, “Astle would have been seduced by Eero Saarinen’s extremely popular Kresge Auditorium and Chapel and by Alvar Aalto’s Baker House auditorium.” The concrete-and-glass structure auditorium and brick dormitory with a large S-curve would later be reference points to many of his projects in Nebraska.
In 1964, Astle moved to Ralston; in 1965, he founded Neil Astle and Associates and began teaching architecture and community design at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
From 1968–1981 his Omaha-based firm received six AIA Nebraska Design Awards, five Central State Awards and two Architectural Record Awards of Excellence. In 1983, he became a fellow in the AIA. Then in 1999, Astle received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Utah Society of Institute of Architects—the first and still only Utah recipient of this award. Astle died in 2000, receiving the Cunningham Gold Medal from AIA Nebraska posthumously eight years later.
Why such lingering admiration for this Omaha-based architect?
Astle’s architectural style, now known as midcentury modern, confronts the expansive nature of suburbia with a counter solution: intense material and spatial investigations, along with honed detailing. As Naegele says, “The transition from man-made suburbia to Neil-made suburbia is one of Astle’s great accomplishments.”
Searching for authenticity in materials, Astle’s architecture was primarily fabricated in cedar and concrete—aging with the landscape of the site—finding continuity of interior and exterior space. Through their specific placement, these structures cascade on their sites. Like other architecture of the period, searching for simplicity was not simple.
With a focus on micro details (for example: hinging on cabinets and closet cladding) and using natural light and architectural space, many of his projects (including several Omaha-area homes and the DeSoto Wildlife Center in Missouri Valley, Iowa) strike an uncompromising balance of form, function, and the environment.
In 1980, Architectural Digest described Astle’s award-winning work as “an architectural gem” and “unmistakably modern.” This respect continues to be felt by many of his contemporaries. Ross Miller, architectural designer at HDR, speaks to Astle’s legacy by simply stating, “he is a true architect.”
Visit aiane.org for more information about the regional chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Home.
Learn about two Neil Astle homes for sale recently in Omaha in this article’s companion piece: “Two Homes, One Architect”