Photo ' Ezra Stoller / Esto

Ford Foundation Headquarters, New York.

He is frequently overshadowed by his former employer, Modernist giant Eero Saarinen, but at the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan, a new exhibition attempts to make a case that Kevin Roche is, in the words of chief curator Sarah Henry, “the quintessential architect of the post-industrial age.” With several dozen giant photographs, suspended from cables in a ground-floor gallery, and six architectural models, Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment shows the Pritzker-winning architect wrestling with America’s transition from a manufacturing to an information-based economy and culture in the late 20th century.

Born in 1922, Roche emigrated in 1948 from Ireland to the United States, where he took a lead role in Saarinen’s office. After Saarinen’s sudden death in 1961, Roche and his colleague John Dinkeloo (1918-1981) completed the firm’s remaining projects before founding their own practice, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, in 1966.

The exhibition and catalogue—researched by Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and her students at Yale, where the exhibition was first staged—argue that Roche is influential for considering architecture as a nexus of complex systems: urbanism, the environment, infrastructure, workplace organization, and architectural history. For his corporate clients, for instance, he researched organizational needs by systematically interviewing employees. This resulted in suburban office buildings of fractal intricacy, like the Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, headquarters of Merck (1993), its floor plan a colossal, crenellated hexagon, or the snowflake-like wings of the Union Carbide headquarters (1982) in Danbury, Connecticut.

Stylistically agnostic, Roche built in concrete, steel, and glass in vocabularies ranging from Brutalism to minimalism to postmodern classical references—or with some combination of the three. Much of his work is justifiably acclaimed, although the squat, yellow-and-green Kimmel Center (2003) at Manhattan’s New York University shows the limits of the systems-analysis design methodology when it neglects aesthetic components like form, proportion, and material.

The New York installation of the show emphasizes Roche’s influence on the city, particularly the landmark Ford Foundation Headquarters (1968) and his complete transformation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (ongoing since 1967). Even better, the city itself is a perfect showcase of his work, with 13 completed buildings still standing throughout Manhattan.

Roche will join former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff for a sold-out conversation at the Ford Foundation Headquarters on October 17, 2011. The exhibition closes on January 22, when it will travel next to the National Building Museum, Washington, DC, in July 2012, followed by the Eric Arthur Gallery, University of Toronto, next October.