An Irish starchitect: the iconic buildings that have made Kevin Roche's reputation

Sat, Apr 9, 2011, 01:00

Kevin Roche went to the United States in the 1940s for a short trip, but the Irishman stayed and ended up shaping the architectural identity of the country, writes FRANK McDONALD, Environment Editor

WHEN KEVIN ROCHE went to the US embassy in Dublin as a young architect in 1948 he just wanted a visitor’s visa. “I really had no intention of staying in the US, but the fellow behind the counter asked if I wanted a green card. ‘Why don’t you take one anyway? I’ve got lots of them,’ he said. So I took it, and then one thing led to another.”

Roche, who will be 89 in June, went on to become the favourite architect of corporate America, designing huge headquarters – megastructures in the woods of New York’s hinterland – for the likes of General Foods and Union Carbide.

Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, aka KRJDA, did great work over the years, notably the much-loved Ford Foundation in New York, which was the first office block with a plant-filled atrium, and a series of glazed extensions to the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, including the remarkable Temple of Dendur pavilion.

Roche still works five days a week at the firm’s offices in Hamden, Connecticut. And now, just down the road in New Haven, Yale University’s school of architecture is hosting a retrospective exhibition, Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment, to celebrate his achievements, including Convention Centre Dublin.

During a recent symposium that I attended at the university, his work is respectfully dissected by a slew of academics. It must be like having an out-of-body experience. “You can say that again,” he says. “It seems as if I died about 20 years ago and didn’t know it” – a reference to the fact the discussions ignored most of his recent projects.

On the previous evening, in a public interview with the Los Angeles Times architecture correspondent Christopher Hawthorne, Roche talked about spending a year at the Illinois Institute of Technology under the rigorous modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and how he subsequently got a job working for the influential Eero Saarinen.

Mies, a German emigre, had “an extraordinary presence”, he said, “like as if you were in the presence of God”. When Mies asked Roche and other master’s degree students to design a house, Roche was the only one to use a pitched roof. Mies was not pleased: “He said, ‘You can do that, but I would not do that, you know.’ ”

After hearing “less is more” rather too often, Roche left Illinois IT and applied for a job with the more eclectic Eero Saarinen. He had been out all night in New York with an actor cousin on an MGM expense account and fell asleep sitting on Saarinen’s bed during the early-morning interview in his hotel room, as the Finnish-American architect droned on.

Despite this, Roche got the job, eventually becoming head of design. And after Saarinen died suddenly, in 1961, he and his colleague John Dinkeloo completed such major projects as the Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri; the CBS headquarters in New York; the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport; and Dulles International Airport in Washington.

Most amazing of all was the IBM pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, which showcased the best of American technology. A virtual forest of steel “trees” held aloft a large ovoid into which a 500-seat grandstand was hydraulically whooshed into a multiscreen cinema with a dazzling display of how these newfangled computers worked.

Roche and Dinkeloo set up their practice in 1966, winning a competition to design the Oakland Museum in California. A masterful marriage of building and landscape, like a modernist Hanging Gardens of Babylon, it was completed in 1968 at a time of social protest; Roche says the unusual design aimed to “create a sense of community”.

KRJDA’S CORPORATE WORK had similar aspirations. For Roche, working nine to five, sitting all day in an office, “must be mind-destroying”, so he always sought to find ways to relieve the tedium by giving employees views of the surrounding forest or even (at Union Carbide) letting them choose from 14 designs for office fit-outs.

Roche also embraced the American car culture. As the highway programme was rolled out in the 1950s and 1960s, he was fascinated by its enormous engineering structures. This found expression in the New Haven Coliseum, a concrete and Cor-Ten steel stadium with four floors of car parking on its roof. It became decrepit and was demolished in 2007.

Alongside it, and still standing, is KRJDA’s towering headquarters for the Knights of Columbus, a forbidding fortress with four cylindrical corner towers from which most of its 23 floors are suspended. Vincent Scully, a professor emeritus of the history of art in architecture at Yale, described it as an example of “paramilitary dandyism”, while Sam Stephenson borrowed its structural system for the Central Bank in Dublin.

This unlikely home for the leading lay Catholic organisation in the US practically sits astride the Oak Street interconnector, which links New Haven with two interstate highways on the edge of town. It was intended to be seen from passing cars; Christopher Hawthorne described it as an appropriate “gateway for the automobile age”.

All Roche’s corporate headquarters in Connecticut were designed around cars. Richardson Vicks, on a wooded site in Wilton, consists of two long floors of offices sandwiched between basement and rooftop car parking. Completed in 1974, it was an early example of “corporate America’s flight to the suburbs”, according to Hawthorne.

The former Union Carbide headquarters in Danbury is equally car-oriented but on a much larger scale. It has almost 100,000sq m of offices arranged in pods on either side of a vast multistorey car park. Huge ramps, some as big as runways, give access to every level so staff can park cars within yards of where they work.

Union Carbide was taken over by Dow Chemical not long after the Bhopal disaster, in 1984. The company’s former headquarters, which reputedly cost nearly $400 million to build in 1980, was snapped up by the Matrix real-estate group in 2009 for $73 million, and the office space is now being crudely subdivided for letting.

This “Spaceship Galactica”, as the New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger put it, is raised on 5,000 columns, with corridors more than 400m long. Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, the associate professor at Yale’s school of architecture who co-ordinated the Roche exhibition, describes it as “the most extreme example of a new paradigm of corporate design, only visible from the air”.

I much prefer the serenity of Roche Dinkeloo’s Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University in the Connecticut town of Middletown. Nine low-rise buildings in stone and concrete, laid out on a grid around specimen trees, include the wonderful Crowell Concert Hall, flooded with light from large windows and its original 1973 green-upholstered seats.

Roche says KRJDA was probably the first architectural practice to use a slide projector to communicate ideas to clients. “People don’t understand architectural drawings, so you have to be able to explain things in terms that they will understand. The visuals need to be good, and our presentations were always successful,” he said at the symposium.

Computers have “complicated our lives enormously” and were a “terrible curse” for architects because they could provide so many options, “Bang, bang, bang!” Roche was keen on finding new solutions, based on a deep study of clients’ requirements, and bore in mind Saarinen’s dictum always to think about the next big thing.

Roche, who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1982, a year after Dinkeloo died, and who was the architect of huge corporate headquarters and soaring skyscrapers such as One UN Plaza in New York, remains a modest man. He told the Yale symposium how his mother, one of a family of 12, had been reared in a “mud hut with a thatched roof” and central stone chimney – a “platinum green” building in its own way, as he said. It’s a long way from there to Roche’s Banco Santander headquarters outside Madrid, the biggest financial campus in Europe.


Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment continues at Yale School of Architecture until May 6th. It will travel to New York, Montreal, Toronto and other cities in North America. Efforts are being made to bring it to Dublin