The Mitchelstown architect who went on to design iconic buildings in USA and Ireland

Raised in Mitchelstown, renowned architect Kevin Roche is the subject of a new documentary.

Kevin Roche’s first job was at a piggery in Co Cork. He’s since gone on to design iconic buildings in the USA and Ireland, and at 95 has no plans to retire, writes Esther McCarthy

HIS architectural work on such buildings as The Met in New York, the Ford Foundation, and Dublin’s Convention Centre has made him one of the most revered figures in his field.

But Irish architect Kevin Roche’s first major project took place in a piggery in Co Cork while he was a teenager. Even then, his desire to bring happiness and a sense of community were foremost in his approach. The project was carried out for his father, Eamon, who was the first manager of Mitchelstown Creamery.

“He got a job as a manager of Mitchelstown creamery. In a very short period, he’d also taken over the other one,” he tells me.

“He started cheesemaking. As a result of that, there was a by-product in the making of the cheese called whey, and so my father had the idea to raise pigs on the whey and then they used waste product from the pigs to fertilise the farm.

“I was at the Christian Brothers’ school at that time, about 12 or 13 years old. When we started with the pigs, I started to do a special pig house. I took that over. There were 800 pigs.

“We kept the pigs happy. That’s where I learned it all! The pigs were wonderful. They got to know me, they would recognise me when I came over.”

His father, who spent time in politics, ended up in prison during the War of Independence era and, upon release, turned his hand to the agriculture business.

“He ended up in jail in England. When he got out of that, he became a member of the first Irish parliament. Then, there was a civil war, he was captured by Fine Gael and ended up in jail in Limerick. When I was born he was in jail. My mother was pretty much destitute.”

Architect Kevin Roche as boy in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, with his mother
Architect Kevin Roche as boy in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, with his mother

Now aged 95, Roche’s fascinating life and work are the subject of a new documentary from Irish filmmaker Mark Noonan. Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect shows many of the Pritzker Prize-winning Irishman’s creations in their splendour, but we get to see his wit and skill for storytelling also. He has never retired, and has no intention of doing so.

He dismisses the notion of retirement in the film’s amusing opening moments, saying: “I think it’s the worst possible thing you could do, retire. I mean, what are you going to do? Argue with your spouse? Play golf? You’re not alive unless your mind is active.”

Does he feel continuing in the work he has such passion for has contributed to his longevity?

“I think so. I think that when you retire, you shut your mind down. After working in a certain way, you’re used to thinking that way, and then you stop and you don’t have that to do anymore. Watch television? That’s absolutely hopeless, not good for you at all.”

America is the place he made his home, having moved there in his twenties, and the country of much of his work. He is passionate about creating a sense of community in his building, though some, such as Ciudad Grupo Santander in Madrid, which includes shops, dining and recreational facilities and even a golf course, are big communities indeed.

“In all the building that I’ve done, I’ve attempted to... first of all what you want to do is get people talking to each other. You want to create a community, where they are all more or less on equal terms, speak to each other, like a village. All of that is to get people together, make them happy. Two reasons: One, it is the responsibility of the architect to do that and, from another point of view, the owners’ point of view, of course, a happy work person is a more productive work person. That’s the argument you make for the owner to do these things.”

In the documentary, he despairs that building for common good doesn’t appeal to people, and he says he feels “very, very sorry” for office workers. Making people’s lives better has motivated him throughout his career.

“Oh yes. Very much so. Very much so. It’s better for the people, for their emotional life. They’re more productive. That’s what we all want, to be part of a community, to be doing something useful, something productive, something important. The first thing you have to do is find out why is the building being built? What is its purpose? Once you get to the heart of that, nearly always, its purpose is to contain people and make it possible for them to work together. It’s obvious, but somehow, architects don’t seem to realise, they just think that by making boxes and putting people in the boxes, that’ll do it.”

He declines to name his favourite projects, joking about never favouring one child over another. The Ford Foundation in New York is one of his most celebrated, and its inner garden brings nature to the city.

The Ford Foundation in New York is one of Roche’s celebrated creations.
The Ford Foundation in New York is one of Roche’s celebrated creations.

“I was looking for a way to create a community and, in a way, in order to do that in an office space, you have to create a community space. Mostly, that’s just the cafeteria, that’s the only place you meet another person. So, I decided to make the Ford Foundation a C-shaped plan, with a public space in the middle of it and then, thinking about what that might be, I decided it would be great if it could be an area where trees could grow. The building is designed so that almost everybody has a view out towards the river.”

Others have triggered potent personal memories, such as the Holocaust Memorial at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

“My father and mother were travelling in Germany before the war; he was on business and she went along. When they got back, my mother was at the breakfast table and she was crying, and I said: ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said: ‘You just won’t believe what’s happening in
Germany and nobody seems to care’.

“They had come across one of these concentration camps, where the Jews were being held by the Nazis.

“I was asked by a number of people to consider designing a memorial to the Holocaust. I immediately went for it, because I’d never forgotten that incident with my mother. I was very pleased to have an opportunity to make some small contribution to the understanding of that terrible time.”

It must have felt rewarding.

“Those are the things that guide you in your life, happenings that come and go. You don’t forget them. They stay with you all your life.”

  • Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect opens in cinemas on Friday


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