A life at the top floor of architecture
Kevin Roche, the Irish-born, Pritzker prize-winning architect, celebrates his 90th birthday today
EVEN AT 90, Kevin Roche is still working on new projects – just as Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius did and Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of Brasilia, is still doing at the age of 104.
“He only stopped coming in on Saturdays last January,” Roche’s secretary told me when I rang to arrange a meeting with my former employer, with whom I had collaborated on the national conference centre in Dublin, his only building in Ireland.
It was in September 1961 that Roche was launched on a trajectory that would see him recognised as one of the great architects of the late 20th century when his boss, world-famous architect Eero Saarinen died suddenly at the age of 51, leaving Roche and John Dinkeloo to finish such iconic projects as the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport, New York, and the Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri.
He had graduated from UCD in 1945, worked with Michael Scott on Busáras and Donnybrook bus garage and then with Maxwell Fry in London before going to Chicago two years later to study under Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
He realised he had learned all he could from the great master when, having produced a pitched-roofed project in contrast to the Miesian boxes of other students, Mies dismissively remarked, as he drew on his cigar, “You might do it that way, but I would not do it that way.”
In 1949, Roche went to New York where he worked for the firm overseeing the construction of the United Nations building. Chance rather than a grand plan led him to join Eero Saarinen and Associates in the spring of 1950.
“I was out of work in New York in 1949 for about five months and I was completely broke,” Roche remembers. “I had a cousin, Kathleen Ryan, who was a movie actress, and she got a contract to star in a movie with James Mason. She arrived in New York with an MGM expense account. We went on a tremendous binge for about a week.
“Someone I worked with on the UN Building recommended me to Eero. We arranged an interview for early morning at his bedroom at the Plaza Hotel. I had been up all night at the Stork Club and arrived as Eero was getting up.
“He began to interview me and I sat on the edge of the bed. Eero had a rather dull delivery and I fell asleep. I woke up and he was still going on about something . . . In any case, Eero hired me and, in a few days, I took a train to Detroit and got a bus to Bloomfield Hills.”
Saarinen had just been commissioned to design the vast General Motors technical centre, a 24-building complex with a budget of $100 million, the most expensive project of its time for the world’s largest corporation. When Roche joined his office, it consisted of just 10 people so that he was given substantial responsibility early on and soon established himself as Saarinen’s main design associate.
With more projects, the office was divided into its distinct design and production wings, led by Roche and Dinkeloo. Their clients were some of the most powerful in corporate America – CBS, IBM, TWA, Cummins Engine Co and John Deere. After Saarinen passed away, all of them appointed Roche Dinkeloo as their architects for later projects.