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Kevin Roche (1922 - 2019)

From a humble first commission to build a piggery for his father in County Cork, the Irish-born American architect went on to work with Eero Saarinen and – with his partner John Dinkeloo – build his own monumental works across the States, culminating in the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1982

Mg kevin roche illu1

Mg kevin roche illu1

Source: Marianna Gefen

Modesty is not an attribute usually associated with fame and influence, especially for architects of the ilk under scrutiny in Reputations; yet modesty, or lack of pretension, was inherent in Kevin Roche’s personality. ‘It’s the buildings’, one can imagine the soft-spoken, Irish-born architect counsel, ‘it is the built work that matters.’ And Roche’s work, perhaps paradoxically for such an unassuming individual, frequently exhibited an unmistakable bravura.

Awarded the Pritzker in 1982, Roche represents – between Johnson, the first laureate in 1979, Pei in 1983, and Bunshaft in 1988 – the great flourishing of American corporate architecture in the decades after the Second World War. That association, represented by such landmark headquarters as Union Carbide in forested Connecticut, or Bouygues, a palatial spacecraft in the orbit of Versailles, came somewhat naturally to Roche as the former assistant of Eero Saarinen. After Saarinen’s sudden death in 1961 aged only 51, Roche, together with John Dinkeloo, realised several of his most memorable structures, the TWA Flight Center at JFK and Dulles International Airport.

 

‘Roche represents the great flourishing of American corporate architecture in the decades after the Second World War’

Far from the sleek, streamlined milieu of corporate America, Kevin Roche grew up in Mitchelstown, a market town in County Cork, in the aftermath of Irish independence. As Elizabeth Bowen evoked in her novel The Last September, these rural towns in North Cork found themselves at that time on the cusp of unprecedented change, or at least with the potential for change. Active in the independence struggle, Roche’s father played a vital role in constructing a new Ireland, forging Mitchelstown Creameries into a trailblazer for what is now called agribusiness.

The younger Roche’s first commission was to build a piggery for his father on the grounds of the local demesne. By then he was a student at University College Dublin (UCD), where his classmates included actor Dan O’Herlihy, father of LA-based architect Lorcan O’Herlihy, and Patrick Scott, later a distinguished artist. UCD was at that stage comparatively immune to Modernism. Roche and Scott gravitated to the office of another Scott, Michael, known for Functionalist hospitals and elegant bus facilities as well as his own villa, with its suggestions of Le Corbusier and JJP Oud, overlooking Dublin Bay.

Although Ireland in the 1940s was not a natural home for ambitious architects, Scott had an ability to attract talent, make international connections and participate in cultural endeavours, including the theatre and visual art. The critical link for Irish architecture, and for Scott’s expanding practice, was with Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Mies van der Rohe. Roche’s initial foray to the US in 1948 saw him attending IIT but reacting against its assumptions or diktats. He found a subsequent berth with Saarinen, in Michigan, more to his liking, less doctrinaire and more open to tackling design with multiple options.

 

For web2

For web2

Source: Courtesy of KRJDA

Stepped landscape terraces engage visitors at the Oakland Museum of California

Like Roche, Saarinen was an immigrant. Son of Eliel, Finland’s National Romantic architect, Eero came to America after Eliel had won second prize in the Chicago Tribune competition and his subsequent role as a kind of Arts & Crafts Gropius at Cranbrook, that exquisite experiment in education and the arts on its rustic site west of Detroit. In 1947 Saarinen fils had famously bettered his father’s submission for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial for St Louis and established his own atelier in Bloomfield Hills, between the creative hub of Cranbrook and the automobile industry, whose own design studios and factories populated metropolitan Detroit.

 

For web00635u

For web00635u

Source: Balthazar Korab Archive

Layered Corten facade strikes a robustly clanging industrial note at the John Deere HQ in Moline

If Michael Scott’s achievement in Ireland was to identify fellow travellers and cajole the powers-that-be, then Saarinen fused the interdisciplinary nature of Cranbrook, inflected by National Romanticism, with the rapid technological growth of postwar America. His espousal of a language for each job resulted in hits (John Deere HQ in Moline, Illinois; Dulles Airport) and misses (the US Embassy, London). Roche and Dinkeloo strove, too, to customise each project to its client, programme and site. And they continued to work through models, as Saarinen had done long before Frank Gehry, inspired in part by prototyping techniques favoured in the automobile industry.

 

For web

For web

Source: Courtesy of KRJDA

The Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts is also, like Oakland Museum, connective campus tissue

Roche and Dinkeloo operated from the building prepared by Saarinen in anticipation of his move from Bloomfield Hills to a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut. Roche’s design studio was downstairs, leading to a double-height model room not unlike a film studio; Dinkeloo’s team worked upstairs, experimenting with new materials and assembly systems like Corten weathering steel and neoprene gaskets as used in car windscreens. The beguiling impression made on clients ushered into the model room with its carefully illuminated presentation models and 1:1 component mock-ups can only be imagined. Removed from the distractions of New York or Chicago, this modus operandi set the practice apart.

‘Roche’s attention to complexly worked-out interiors conceivably resulted in object buildings isolated from traditional urban contexts’

Two early projects launched the architects into the national spotlight and allowed them to establish Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA) in 1966: the Ford Foundation in Midtown Manhattan and the Oakland Museum of California. The Ford Foundation manifested Roche and Dinkeloo’s ongoing analysis of corporate culture, opening trays of office space out onto a glazed cubic volume. Few of the subsequent atria in US real estate achieved the lucidity and refinement of Ford, and it continues to offer New Yorkers a light-filled retreat from the street, a crystalline oasis planted in collaboration with Dan Kiley.

 

College life korab

College life korab

Source: Balthazar Korab Archive

Alert to the possibilites of building in an American freeway landscape, a trio of truncated pyramids give the College Life Insurance HQ in Indiana a brooding monumentality

Kiley also acted as landscape architect for Oakland. In Manhattan, the garden is primarily introverted, albeit with views to sky and city beyond, but in California the opposite occurs. The museum is subsumed and protected beneath an expansive set of terraces open to the weather and, on occasion, Oakland’s looser urban grain. It’s a form of Land Art, predating Emilio Ambasz’s speculative projects of the 1970s and ’80s and indicating Roche’s interest in infrastructure, evident in later buildings such as the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the Knights of Columbus tower standing sentinel, at the scale of interchanges, as a gateway to New Haven.

 

New haven coliseum copy tc

New haven coliseum copy tc

Drawing of the Knights of Columbus HQ and Coliseum complex in New Haven (the latter was demolished in 2007)

Roche’s work now found itself in the contentious overlap between Late and Post-Modernism. Late Modernism was epitomised by Mies acolytes, Saarinen collaborators, and Harvard students of Gropius and Breuer; Post-Modernism by Charles Moore, the then dean at Yale, James Wines with his deconstructed Big Box stores, and Robert Venturi, who worked for Saarinen in the early ’50s but never quite seemed ‘one of the gang’. If Roche’s urban buildings juxtaposed themselves with city fabric in an ostensibly Late Modern way, his other projects embraced Americana, attentive – as with the truncated pyramids for College Life Insurance in Indiana – to the legibility of architecture set in a freeway landscape.

Key works
Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, USA, 1966
Cummins Engine Plant, Darlington, UK, 1966
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA, from 1967
Ford Foundation, New York, USA, 1968
United Nations Plaza, New York, USA, 1969
Knights of Columbus HQ, New Haven, USA, 1969
Fine Arts Center, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA, 1974
College Life Insurance HQ, Indianapolis, USA, 1974
John Deere HQ, Moline, USA, 1978
Cummins Engine Company HQ, Columbus, USA, 1985
Bouygues World HQ, St-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France, 1988
Convention Centre, Dublin, Ireland, 2010

Awards and honours
Pritzker Prize, 1982
AIA Gold Medal, 1993

Quote
‘On occasion, there’s a big gesture, and that’s OK. But I’m basically a problem-solving construction guy’

This attention to architecture as sign and as landscape led to a trio of seminal projects in Columbus, Indiana. The Irwin Union Bank and Trust is an extruded and chamfered monolith clad in striped green glass and strangely suggestive of Superstudio, while the Cummins Engine Company Sub-Assembly Plant is a semi-interred factory with rooftop parking, not unlike Hans Hollein’s vision of an aircraft carrier in open countryside. The same company’s Corporate Headquarters is a low expanse of modular office space spreading out from a taller historic building repurposed as an iconic element.

Ead6f6

Ead6f6

Source: Patti McConville / ALAMY

Sleekly Minimalist conservatories augment the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Columbus, Indiana, is today a place of pilgrimage for design enthusiasts due to the remarkable patronage of the Miller family, whose business interests included the bank and the engine company. The patriarch J Irwin Miller had been a contemporary of Saarinen’s at Yale and Saarinen was in part responsible for instilling in him a belief in the values of modern architecture. Roche had worked closely with Saarinen, and Kiley, on the Miller family home, now a National Historic Landmark, and maintained that connection. It was one of the most fruitful of all Roche’s professional client relationships.

Fordfoundationbuilding 2018 2c6a5434 final richardbarnes

Fordfoundationbuilding 2018 2c6a5434 final richardbarnes

Source: Courtesy of Ford Foundation / Richard Barnes

The apotheosis of the corporate atrium at the Ford Foundation in New York

This connection with clients was often sealed by patron visits to that model room in Connecticut. Kurt Waldheim was a rare exception. The Secretary General of the UN objected to Roche’s idea to wrap totemic towers across from the UN in bands of red and blue glass – a potential homage to the Stars and Stripes? Other clients stayed faithful, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Roche worked for five decades, a remarkable legacy in that most ambitious context, adding the theatrical steps out front and a series of additions, such as vast Minimalist conservatories, to the north, south and west abutting Central Park.

Small portrait

Small portrait

Source: Courtesy of KRJDA

Roche, working on a model

Roche’s attention to complexly worked-out interiors conceivably resulted in object buildings isolated from traditional urban contexts or the kind of typological understanding then in vogue with younger architectural minds. By the ’80s, Roche had begun working on more commercial projects, in several cases office towers for Houston developer Gerald D Hines. Without the needs of specific user groups to respond to, these designs may appear to be overtly Post-Modern with allusions to Art Deco and gigantic Classical pillars. The chamfered corners of the pillars afforded, however, the unexpected luxury of multiple corner offices.

For web3

For web3

Source: Courtesy of KRJDA

Totemic towers at UN Plaza in New York, originally intended to be wrapped in bands of blue and red glass

By the time Roche won the Pritzker, Dinkeloo had been dead for two years. Material exploration became less pronounced in the practice; image seemed to drive some projects. Like others, Roche certainly experimented with historical form, typically one form as opposed to multiple fragmentary components. He played with mirrored surfaces, both inside and out, as at UN Plaza where the hotel lobby and grillroom now have landmark status. His 2009 office building in Washington DC reads as an eroded glass block or, obversely, an agglomeration of stocky reflective columns – in either reading, many corner offices, a boon for leasing agents, are created.

Irish passport

Irish passport

Page from a current Irish passport featuring Roche’s Convention Centre in Dublin

In 2002, Roche donated significant material to Yale’s Eero Saarinen Collection; the archive of his own practice should soon follow suit. Early in their career, Roche and Dinkeloo built their sole UK project; a factory with Corten steel frame for Cummins Engine Plant in Darlington, County Durham. However, Roche had to wait for the Celtic Tiger before realising a major project in his homeland. The Convention Centre Dublin presents the Liffey quays with an opaque cube pierced by a dramatically canted glass cylinder. It has less nuance than much of the best current Irish architecture yet reappears today in the pages of Irish passports.

The recent deaths of three Pritzker laureates – Venturi, Roche and Pei – mark a turning point for US architecture. Students are reassessing the work of all three. The Ford Foundation and Oakland assure Roche Dinkeloo a place in the pantheon of late 20th-century architecture. In 2008, a Yale Perspecta interview interrogated the robust scale of Roche structures. ‘Monumental architecture … makes us stop’, this most modest of famous architects observed; a building, he suggested, ‘only exists when people see it’. Monumentality, therefore, not in the service of ego but of collective perception.

This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today