Why we need to talk about Kevin Roche . . . .


He helped design Busáras when he was 24, then made his mark as an architect in the US. Now he hopes the conference centre he designed in Spencer Dock a decade ago will soon be built. Environment Editor Frank McDonald talks to Kevin Roche

Does Bertie Ahern know what's going on? That's the basic question posed by internationally renowned Dublin-born architect Kevin Roche on foot of all the obstacles he has had to negotiate to get his design for the National Conference Centre (NCC) off the ground at Spencer Dock.

Roche is too much of a gentleman to say what he really thinks of the saga that has unfolded since he was first commissioned to do the project by Johnny Ronan, of Treasury Holdings.

It would be "unprintable", he said politely in an interview in Dublin last week prior to a lecture at the National Gallery.

Asked about the contrast between his experience here and in other parts of the world, he said: "Let's put it this way, it's very Irish. Nothing is simple. There are so many different bodies with different agendas.

"The only one other country I've worked in that has the same 'hidden agenda' world is France".

Roche rattled off some of the names - Dublin City Council, the Docklands Development Authority, the Office of Public Works, An Bord Pleanála, not to mention his own clients - and laughed knowingly when I suggested it must have been like playing a game of musical chairs in a hall of mirrors.

Ronan first talked to him about the NCC project nearly 10 years ago. "I didn't particularly want to do it, but Johnny was very persuasive, and he's a real character. But I really didn't want to get involved in the rest of it" - stacking up high-rise offices and apartments on the site, to help fund the NCC.

"I thought it would be a normal process - you design something, go to the authorities, they express their views, you tweak it a little bit and then you're ready to go. That's pretty much the way it operates everywhere, even in Asian countries like Singapore, Japan and India, though China can be tough."

Roche recalled doing a project in Beijing 20 years ago. "The client was the Chinese army - actually four army generals and one air force general. They were down-to-earth, real folks, and we got on very well. But we couldn't get it approved by the planning board, so the project collapsed after two years."

Asked if he found the planning process in Ireland frustrating, he said: "I have to be be honest and say 'yes'. I wish I knew how it works. There are people here who have made a profession at guiding you through it, for a consideration. Because you definitely need a guide".

Roche still doesn't understand why, if the Government really wanted a conference centre, it didn't just go out and build one, rather than seeking to procure it by public-private partnership (PPP). He also predicted that the "same set of problems" would arise with the proposed PPP for a new Abbey Theatre.

With Treasury Holdings now the "preferred bidder" for the NCC, negotiations have entered the final phase and Roche himself was involved in an endless round of meetings last week. It is now expected that a contract will be signed before Christmas; if so, there's a good chance he will see it built.

Kevin Roche is now 84, though he looks quite a bit younger. He doesn't drink coffee because he believes it's carcinogenic, and doesn't drink tea either.

A practising architect for 60 years, he still works five days a week and has no intention of giving it up: "I think the worst thing you could ever do is to retire."

After graduating from the UCD School of Architecture in 1945, he worked with Michael Scott on the Busáras project and the bus garage in Donnybrook. "I did the shell vaulting with Ove Arup. I was 24 - it's ridiculous isn't it? - and pretty full of myself. I was just so excited about being an architect."

Even in his first year at college, he was quite cocky. One day he came across a Garda at the top of Grafton Street who was pacing the skid marks from a traffic accident. "I told him that I was an architect and could measure them by sight.

"He looked me up and down, and said 'Would you ever f*** off!'." Having grown up in Mitchelstown during the era of thrift, Roche is amazed by Ireland today. "The change is truly phenomenal," he said.

"My wife Jane and I looked in an estate agent's window on Merrion Row. We couldn't believe the prices. It's like the Upper East Side [of New York] and then some."

On their way back to the Merrion Hotel from Shanahan's restaurant, he noticed something else. "There's a certain aggressiveness that has entered into aspects of society here. People on the street just walk into you. Even in the most crowded parts of New York, you don't get that."

As for how long the economic boom might last, he had this word of advice: "One should always remember that things are cyclical, like life itself. So expect the downturn, because it surely will come. After all, it's only 100 years ago that people in Ireland were living in the simplest way in mud cottages."

Roche doesn't see architecture as "necessarily the despoiler of nature". In nearly all of his astonishing array of projects, he has sought to make an accommodation with the natural environment. Even where huge corporate headquarters were being built, he would insist on saving trees on the site.

"I hope this does not sound too pompous, but I don't worry about architecture compositionally. What I'm really concerned about is to provide decent environments for people to live and work in, rejoice and worship in. And you can do that without despoiling the environment - cultural, natural or physical.

"I don't regard architecture as an abstract art, but rather more as an accommodation of human needs. That's the challenge and privilege of architects. If you look at architecture as a service, it provides you with the opportunity occasionally of making an artistic statement, rather than the other way round."

He sees architecture as "really the science, and sometimes the art, of providing environments that encourage a sense of community".

That's what he did for the Ford Foundation in New York back in 1967, and he still gets letters from retiring staff saying what a great experience it was to work there.

New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger has described Kevin Roche as "one of the most creative designers in glass that the 20th century has produced . . . a brilliantly innovative designer, his work manages to be inventive without ever falling into the trap of excessive theatricality".

His New Haven-based practice has just finished a new headquarters outside Madrid for Banco Santander. With 400,000sq m (37,161sq ft) of office space, it includes a 400-child daycare centre, an Olympic swimming pool, an art gallery and "here's the grab [ as he puts it] - "an 18- hole golf course!".

Roche is concerned about climate change and welcomes advances such as last week's report for the British government by economist Sir Nicolas Stern. "Unfortunately, the US government currently in power has taken opposite point of view. It's really a great tragedy, but maybe that will change."

As he told the National Gallery audience, his latest project for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is the Roman Galleries, where he detailed the classical columns very precisely to 79AD - the year when the Roman republic turned into an empire. "I thought that might resonate with some people," he said.

For a listing of major projects by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, see www.krjda.com