Like his mentor Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche could design buildings of startling originality. His Ford Foundation headquarters, on 42nd Street in Manhattan, completed in 1967, arrays glass-walled offices around a spectacular 12-story atrium. His Oakland Museum of California, which opened in 1969, conceals galleries in planted terraces cascading down a hill. And his Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., completed in 1973, is a collection of discrete concrete boxes, almost heroic in their simplicity.
Roche, who died on Friday at 96, will be remembered for those iconic buildings, and for the more than 200 other projects realized by his firm Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA). "It would be impossible to write a history of 20th-century architecture without Kevin Roche," Robert A.M. Stern said in the 2017 documentary Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect. Roche won the Pritzker Prize in 1982 and the AIA Gold Medal in 1993.
In a more-than-70-year career designing corporate, institutional and commercial buildings, however, Roche rarely matched the heights of Wesleyan, Oakland and Ford. Reviewing a 2011 exhibition of Roche’s work, Belmont Freeman, an architect and critic, described his path from those early projects “through the increasingly gargantuan suburban corporate buildings of the 1970s and ’80s and the sometimes banal developer projects of more recent years.” At a symposium associated with the exhibition, Roche himself commented that the previous speakers “had made him feel like he had retired in 1980.”
In fact, Roche continued working almost until his death. His career included a 40-year relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hired in 1967 to devise a master plan for the museum, he and his partner John Dinkeloo created a wide stairway in front of the building, replacing McKim, Mead & White’s narrower flight. John Morris Dixon, the longtime editor of Progressive Architecture magazine, called the new steps “one of New York’s architectural coups.” Later, the firm completed the pyramidal Lehman Wing and the glass-walled container for the Temple of Dendur, among other additions to the museum, which together nearly doubled the building’s size. New galleries for Greek and Roman art—replacing an old cafeteria—opened to rave reviews in 2007.
Some of his buildings, like the Knights of Columbus Tower in New Haven (1969), corsetted by four massive round piers, were lightning rods for criticism, and the quality of the firm’s work in recent decades was uneven. Paul Goldberger, writing in the Times, praised 1 United Nations Plaza, the hotel and office tower completed in 1976, as “an exquisite minimalist sculpture.” But Roche’s Egyptian-inspired headquarters for E.F. Hutton on West 53d Street, completed in 1987, was, according to Goldberger, “pretentious and overblown.”
Eamonn Kevin Roche himself was never either of those things. Born in Dublin in 1922, he was raised in Mitchelstown, County Cork, where, he said in the 2017 documentary, “Nobody had ever heard of an architect.” But his father, a successful farmer, asked Roche to design a pigsty, which he did. “The pigs loved it,” he recalled—and Roche was on his way.
During World War II, he earned an architecture degree from the National University of Ireland. In 1948, while working briefly for architects in Dublin and London, he saw the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in magazines and resolved to study at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where Mies presided. Roche arrived there in 1948 but, finding Mies “uncommunicative,” lasted only one semester.
He planned to try his luck working for Alvar Aalto. But he was “totally broke” and “living in the streets,” he said, when he heard about Eero Saarinen, who had taken on more projects than his small office could handle. Roche joined Eero Saarinen and Associates in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1950 and in 1954 was named Principal Design Associate, working closely with Saarinen. Seven years later, when Saarinen died unexpectedly, Roche and Dinkeloo took over. Together they completed about a dozen Saarinen projects, including the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the gull-winged TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York; and the stoic, soaring CBS Headquarters (known as Black Rock) on Sixth Ave. at 53rd Street in Manhattan.
In 1966, when most of the Saarinen projects were complete, Roche and Dinkeloo formed KRJDA in Hamden, Connecticut, where Saarinen had begun moving his firm just before he died. Roche was its chief designer.
The Saarinen connection helped the new firm snare its first important commissions. Roche told the authors John Cook and Heinrich Klotz in their 1973 book Conversations with Architects that the committee searching for an architect for the Oakland museum “had intended to invite Eero” and therefore invited KRJDA “as a courtesy.” The committee was won over by the firm’s scheme—which gave Oakland a beloved public space and presaged the “green roof” movement by decades. But at the same time, the architects worked in raw concrete in Oakland and at Wesleyan, they were using luxe materials, like grayish-pink granite, for Ford. With that building, Jonathan Barnett wrote in Architectural Record in 1968, the architects “created a new kind of urban space that stands between the sealed environment of a modern office building and the increasingly harsh and uncontrolled urban landscape outside.” But they avoided that kind of mediation in later buildings, some of which are tightly wrapped in mirrored glass. If Roche’s work lacked a single unifying element, that was intentional, he said. “Society is enormously complex, so I suppose it’s reasonable to expect this range,” he told Cook and Klotz.
In recent years, the Metropolitan Museum began working with architects other than Roche, and the Ford Foundation didn’t formally involve him in its recent $200 million renovation. Last July, the firm announced it would “wind up operations”— declining new work while focusing on completing a 2.2 million square foot development in Washington and preparing its archives to be donated to Yale.
Roche is survived by his wife, the former Jane Tuohy, whom he met at Saarinen’s office, and their five children, and 15 grandchildren. In the 2017 film, he was depicted as wedded to his work. "He only stopped coming in on Saturdays last January," Roche's assistant said.
See Kevin Roche discuss the renovation of the Ford Foundation in this exclusive RECORD Interview.
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