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.

Roche heard about Saarinen’s death while he was at a meeting at CBS in New York discussing the number of elevators in their new tower building.

“I got an urgent telephone call telling me Eero had died after his operation for a brain tumour. I went back into the meeting and told everyone. After much consternation, we continued with the meeting. Eero would have appreciated that. He was very pragmatic . . .”

Roche and his future wife, Jane, were due to be married the next week, but they decided to postpone the event “as it didn’t seem like the right moment with so many problems and things going on”. In addition, the remainder of the office was due to move from Michigan to New Haven in the following couple of weeks. After the move, Kevin and Jane were duly married, went on to have five children and 12 grandchildren and remained a devoted couple.

Roche, then still not a US citizen, realised that the practice had almost four years of work to complete all of Saarinen’s projects. John Dinkeloo, who was older than Roche and a partner of Saarinen, knew that the only way for them to survive beyond that was to generate additional work and that meant getting a designer to replace Saarinen.

They managed to persuade the organisers of an architectural competition for the Oakland Museum in California to keep Eero Saarinen and Associates among the contenders after the principal’s death. Competing against such eminent figures as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Pier Luigi Nervi, Josep Lluis Sert and Minoru Yamasaki, Roche went on to win the commission.

His decision not to build a tall monument but instead to create a low series of exhibition spaces with a public park overhead – implementing a long-lost objective of the original masterplan for the city – was hailed as revolutionary in terms of design and environment. Indeed, Dinkeloo was moved to tears by the sheer power of the young Irishman’s presentation to the competition jury.

Two further commissions – the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and the Ford Foundation Building – established the reputation of the two new principals in their own right. By the time they had completed all of Saarinen’s remaining commissions and formed a new partnership, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA) in 1965, their reputation was well established in the design world and with their clients.

The practice quickly built upon Saarinen’s reputation as the favourite architect of corporate America to complete projects such as Aetna Life headquarters, Hartford; College Life Insurance headquarters, Indianapolis; Union Carbide headquarters, Connecticut; Bouygues headquarters, Paris, and Banco Santander headquarters, Madrid.

There were also major public and educational projects such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, on which KRJDA has worked for more than 40 years.

Kevin Roche is surely one of the most significant architects of the late 20th century. His Ford Foundation and Oakland Museum are epoch-defining buildings and the body of his work is a testament to his place in the architectural firmament. Let us celebrate his achievements in his 90th year and marvel at his continuing commitment to his work and profession.

Tony Reddy is chairman of Reddy Architecture+Urbanism and a former president of the RIAI