Kevin Roche Obituary: Irish architect who rose to global prominance
The Convention Centre Dublin was his only Irish project since moving to the US in 1948
Kevin Roche at the official opening of the Convention Centre Dublin in 2010. While the architect loved strong, memorable forms, he saw architecture as a matter of problem-solving as much as shape-making. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Born: June 14th, 1922
Died: March 1st, 2019
Kevin Roche, who died at the age of 96 at his home in Guilford, Connecticut, was one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. The Dublin born, American-based architect designed more than 200 buildings including museums, art centres, corporate headquarters, airport terminals and university buildings.
In the United States, his extensive portfolio of work included several remodeling and extensions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the United Nations Plaza in Manhattan, the Oaklands Museum in California and the Ford Foundation headquarters on East 42nd Street which in 1968 became the first modern building to be laid out around a plant-filled atrium.
The Convention Centre Dublin on the Liffey quays was his first and only Irish project, since his move to the US in 1948. Completed in 2010, it immediately became a striking new icon for Dublin.
The youngest of three boys (his sister died during childhood) of Eamon and Alice (Harding), Eamonn Kevin Roche was born after Ireland’s War of Independence and just before the Irish Civil War. In 2017, he told The Irish Times that his birth occurred while his father – who fought on the Republican side – was in jail. “So my mother was kind of destitute and I was born over her sister’s shop. When he got out of jail, my father took a job in a creamery. Typical of him, he took over the neighbouring creamery within a year and then he got into the cheese business,” said Roche in an interview when the documentary film, Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect, was released in 2017.
Eamon Roche, Kevin’s father, went on to found the Galtee Cheese Company where the family settled in Mitchelstown, Co Cork. Following his education at Rockwell College, Co Tipperary, Roche studied architecture at University College Dublin and after his first year there, his father gave him his first commission – to design a piggery for Mitchelstown Creameries.
Following his graduation in 1945, Roche worked with the Dublin modernist architect Michael Scott on the designs for Busáras and Donnybrook bus garage. He then moved to London to work with Maxwell Fry before opting to study under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1948.
Excited by the building of the United Nations headquarters and the “idea that people would stop fighting one another”, Roche moved to New York in 1949 and worked in the planning office on the UN headquarters project. He then moved to Detroit to work with the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who was then emerging as one of the world’s leading architects. He was assigned to work on the General Motors Technical Center, a sprawling campus of 24 modern buildings that would become emblematic of corporate architecture of the early 1950s.
While working for Saarinen, he met his wife-to-be, Jane Tuohy; the couple married in June 1963 and went on to have five children.
When Saarinen died suddenly in 1961, Roche and his colleagues John Dinkeloo and Joseph Lacy took over several of their late mentor’s grander unfinished projects, notably the Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri; the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport; Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport and the John Deere headquarters in Moline, Illinois. In 1966, they founded the current Hamden, Connecticut-based offices of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates. Dinkeloo died in 1981, after which Roche headed the office himself.
During his career, Roche served as a trustee of the American Academy in Rome, president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a member of the National Academy of Design and the US Commission of Fine Arts.
In 1982, Roche became one of the first recipients of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent to a Nobel Prize. At the award ceremony he said, “We should, all of us, bend our will to create a civilization in which we can live at peace with nature and each other. To build well is an act of peace. Let us hope that will not be in vain.” The €100,000 prize money was used to create a chair of architecture at Yale in memory of Eero Saarinen.
Following these awards, Roche’s practice went global, receiving commissions for buildings including the Shiodome in Tokyo city centre, the Santander Bank headquarters in Madrid and the headquarters of the French construction company, Bouygues in Paris. Other awards he received include the American Institute of Architects gold medal in 1993 and the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland Gandon medal for lifetime achievement.
Although he reached the top of his profession, Roche had a self-deprecating manner, little interest in celebrity and eschewed the label “starchitect”. His mission was to create buildings for the people who used them and for the community who would live around it. He has been credited with creating green buildings long before they became part of the public consciousness.
And while he loved strong, memorable forms, he saw architecture as a matter of problem-solving as much as shape-making. “On occasion, there’s a big gesture and that’s okay but I’m basically a problem-solving construction guy,” he once said.
Reviewers of his work claim he was most comfortable when sculpting modernist shapes in glass, masonry and steel filled with light and greenery. A devoted husband, father and grandfather, he had no interest in retiring and continued to work until he was 95 in the offices of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates.
Kevin Roche is survived by his wife, Jane, children Eamon, Paud, Denise, Anne and Alice, their spouses and 15 grandchildren.