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Kevin Roche: An Irish Architect who Built Urban America
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Kevin Roche: An Irish Architect who Built Urban America

Picture of Joe Lloyd
Updated: 12 December 2015
Since the 1960s, Kevin Roche has been central to the creation of a post-industrial architecture in the late twentieth century. His shadow looms large over civic and corporate architecture today, both in terms of aesthetics and ethos. Whether in the grandiose scale of High Tech or phenomenological architecture’s focus on experience, Roche’s stamp can be found. His own buildings, in the United States and abroad, stand as some of the most significant monuments to his time.

Born in Ireland in 1922, in the midst of the Irish Civil War, Roche’s youth was defined by conflict. When he came into the world, his father was serving a two-year prison sentence for dissident activity, Ireland was newly independent and Europe was still reeling from the ravages of the Great War. In 1940 he enrolled at University College Dublin to study architecture. Outside neutral Ireland, the Second World War was raging in Europe, with bombs even devastating the nearby United Kingdom. Teaching in Dublin focused on Beaux Arts and similar historicist schools of architecture, carried on from the end of the nineteenth-century. To a young man aware of the trauma happening just across the sea, this course seemed despairingly moribund. The world of Beaux Arts, and by extension Europe, was being blown to pieces. In 1941 Roche’s conservative professor died, and slowly he and his course mates began to discover modern architecture. Communication with the world outside Ireland was difficult, and Roche had to rely on magazines published before the war to catch a glimpse of the world being done overseas. Discovering the works of Aalto and Asplund in Scandinavia, Le Corbusier in France and Frank Lloyd Wright in America, he began to shape his own architectural vision.

Roche’s first work was a 1000-capacity piggery, commissioned by his father. After graduating in 1945, he started working with the Irish modernist Michael Scott, who allowed his employees to make some of the design decisions themselves. Roche, for instance, contributed to a bus terminal and garage, opening up his interest architecture that serves a societal utility. A period working for Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, who were partially responsible for rebuilding London after the Blitz, gave him first-hand experience of the importance of creating buildings that harmonise sympathetically with their cityscape. Eager to visit America to survey its architectural advances, in 1948 Roche moved to Chicago. There he studied with Mies van der Rohe, one of modernism’s greatest architects. Roche left after a single year, frustrated by his tutor’s formalist obsession with the design of a building rather than by architecture’s capacity to interact with the world.

After a period struggling to find work, he was hired by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, a Finnish father-and-son practice. Eliel died soon after, and Roche found himself working increasingly closely with Eero. Saarinen was an expressionist, creating buildings centered around a concept so that, in his own words, ‘the building sings with the message.’ His work, though idiosyncratic, ranged hugely in style, from the taut geometry of the General Motors Technical Center to the TWA Flight Center’s curvilinear futurism. While Saarinen was a dreamer, sketching out idea after idea, Roche ensured that his projects moved onto completion. When Saarinen tragically died of a brain tumour in 1961, Roche – along with John Dinkeloo, a construction and technology expert – finished his remaining projects, including the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis. In 1966, deciding to continue their collaboration, the pair founded Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, which has practised ever since.

Roche’s first major commission, the Oakland Museum (1966) in California, lay out the precepts of his work since. While Saarinen went in for grand gestures, Roche’s design is almost subtle. Evocative of a ziggurat, the museum’s tiered layers allow for public gardens on different levels. Indeed, it’s a profoundly publically minded building, concerned more about how visitors and passersbys alike interact with its spaces than imposing an individual’s vision on a site or simply designing for the aggrandizement of a client. This commitment to both the social aspects of architecture and its impact on the surrounding environment has become one of Roche’s calling cards. His focus on extensive research, technological advances and mathematical calculation, aided by Dinkeloo, contributes by favouring empirical knowledge of a site over visionary speculation. It’s fitting that the 2012’s Roche retrospective exhibition at the National Building Museum was titled Architecture as Environment.

The Ford Foundation Building (1968) in New York City is the early apotheosis of these ideas. Built from russet steel and soft brown granite, its materials evoke highways and car factories, reflecting the Foundation’s root in the automobile industry. The levels of offices open out onto a large vertical space, at the bottom of which lies a lush indoor arboretum. The lower floors are tiered and topped with a series of roof gardens, and natural light streams through the glass roof. Although each office’s blinds can be closed for privacy, the building creates a social, open workplace. In an interview, Roche claimed that the Foundation’s president happily takes afternoon naps in the full view of the facing offices, subverting the formality of traditional employer-employee relationships.

Through the 60s and 70s, the practice created a series of iconic modernist buildings. These include the monumental College Life Insurance Headquarters (1970), a connecting row of three pyramids with glass sides facing a verdant landscape and concrete backs concealing the neighbouring freeway. The staggering Knights of Columbus Building in New Haven conceals stairs, toilets and other services within four huge pillars. The now demolished New Haven Coliseum, which sat nearby, housed an events complex underneath a 2,400 capacity car park.

From the late 70s, Roche started to experiment with different styles, melting contemporary and classical aesthetics. His work on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose original structure dates from the late nineteenth century, seamlessly blends in with the main building while being avowedly modern. Tokyo’s DN Tower 21 (1995) soars above a historic art deco structure, sympathetically melding with the block below. This careful attention to pre-existing structures extends Roche’s belief in the importance of environment. In 1982, he became only the fourth recipient of the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious award for a living architect. Since, he has continued his path of innovation, much of which refines and develops on his earlier designs. The Bouygues Headquarters (2006) in central Paris harmonizes with its Hausmanian surroundings and houses a beautiful internal garden, and the Convention Centre Dublin (2010) is the first carbon neutral building of its scale.

Although in his 92nd year, Kevin Roche remains one of the most significant architects working today. His career, from his work with Saarinen to the present day, has shaped 20th century cityscapes immensely. He has helped to promote importance of the social and environmental issues surrounding architecture, its connection to the rest of society. And, both through his aesthetics and his ethos, he’s influenced scores of architects working around the world.

By Joe Lloyd