The Corkman who conquered the world

Carol O’Callaghan reviews the life and internationally renowned work of Irish-American architect, Kevin Roche

The Corkman who conquered the world

It’s said you’re never a prophet in your own country, an expression relevant in Ireland when it comes to some of our main proponents of the arts and applied arts.

Until the last five to 10 years, who, here, had heard of Eileen Gray, a furniture designer of international repute, honoured in places like France? Or Mainie Jellet, our foremost artist in the Modernist genre?

Neither is exactly a household name among those outside of the world of art and design students, aficionados and collectors, which leads me to ask, has anyone heard of architect Kevin Roche?

Happily, this designer of international repute is still living, and despite being in his 10th decade, continues to work at the architectural practice he co-founded in the 1960s, and which is based in Hamden, Connecticut.

From there he has designed some of the most defining architecture in America and beyond, and it’s where he continues to grow a design portfolio which includes museums, corporate headquarters, research facilities, performing art centres, and universities.

Born in Dublin in 1922 and raised in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, his life is the subject of a new documentary film, Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect, written and directed by Mark Noonan, who trained as an architect and admits to never having heard of Roche while studying, until a producer friend mentioned him about four years ago.

Now thanks to funding from the likes of the Irish Film Board and the Ford Foundation for its production (Roche designed the Ford Foundation headquarters in Manhattan, completed in 1968), the film is set for general release in Ireland on October 13.

It tells of Roche, the graduate of University College Dublin in 1945, who worked, firstly, for the late Michael Scott, (whose work includes Cork Opera House, the Abbey Theatre and Busáras).

But it was during a summer job in London the following year that Roche applied to and was accepted onto postgraduate courses in three of the most prestigious architectural colleges in America — Harvard, Yale and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

He chose Illinois and left Ireland to study in Chicago under Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, probably the most influential architect in the world at the time.

But far from being an acolyte, Roche clashed with van der Rohe and parted company with him, and followed with a brief stint working with the planning office for the United Nations Headquarters building, until he joined the practice of architect Eero Saarinen.

Two encounters there would define his professional and personal life, meeting his future professional partner, architect/engineer John Dinkeloo, and interior designer Jane Tuohy, his future wife, with whom he had five children after marrying in 1963, although the wedding had been postponed at one point due to the sudden death of Saarinen in 1961.

But it was Saarinen’s death which proved to be a pivotal moment for Roche as he and Dinkeloo had already discussed setting up their own firm. Instead, they took over Eero Saarinen and Associates and persuaded existing clients to keep them on.

Over the subsequent four years, he and Dinkeloo finished all of its outstanding projects and also completed a planned move of the firm from Chicago to Connecticut. But there was also the pressing issue of getting more work for the firm. Roche had managed to persuade the organisers of an architectural competition for the Oakland Museum in California —located on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay — to keep Eero Saarinen and Associates among the contenders after the principal’s death.

Doing his research and unearthing a forgotten aim of the original masterplan for the city’s design to keep buildings low-level, Roche delivered a coup. His proposal was to design a series of low-level exhibition spaces, interspersed with terraces and public parks overhead. It won him the commission, beating, among others, design giants of the Bauhaus Movement — Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.

Even his presentations to clients was innovative, involving the making of oil and gouache paintings which he then photographed and put on slides. It was akin to an iteration of the Power Point presentations so familiar to us today but 40 years ahead of its time: A near digital approach in an analogue era.

The success of the Oakland Museum project and the high-profile commission for the Ford Foundation building in New York, regarded as the first large-scale architectural building in America to include a substantial portion of its space to horticultural pursuits, made Roche’s name.

This then led to his association with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a tenure which now spans more than 40 years as he continues to add new wings to the complex as necessary.

Once finished with Saarinen’s projects, which included the TWA Flight Centre at JFK International Airport and the CBS Headquarters in New York, he and Dinkeloo changed the firm’s name to Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates LLC (KRJDA), creating a partnership which continued until Dinkaloo’s death in 1981.

The following year, Roche became a Pritzker Prize laureate, the award for architecture modelled on the Nobel Prize, and for which he later served as a jury member.

Stretching his design reach beyond America to Europe and Asia, it took until 1999 for him to be invited to design what is regarded as his first Irish commission — the National Convention Centre in Dublin — which took until 2010 to complete. He was then 88 years old.

Some might say it was his second Irish commission as back in the 1940s his first solo job was to design a piggery for his father to house 5,000 pigs.

It prompts a reminder of a statement he makes on camera during the course of the film. “Ego and architecture are dangerous,” he says, gainsaying the notion proposed in the film by colleagues, peers and clients, that he is a celebrity or ‘starchitect’.

“I’m concerned with how buildings work for people,” he explains. “I never think of them as Kevin Roche buildings, I just poke at it. I’m never the beast. The beast is just sitting there.” Paradoxically, perhaps, colleagues, peers and clients support his self-effacing view that he’s not a monument builder, and his assertions that the responsibility of architects is to create communities for a democratic society.

It suggests of him a humility rooted in the professional value system which has served him and architecture for over 60 years, and has helped to become described as ‘the quiet architect’.

Eschewing the notion that one ought to retire, he dismisses how much golf one can play, or how much time can be spent sitting in the sun. “I think it’s the worst, worst possible thing you can do to retire. You’re not alive unless your mind is active, you’re just a vegetable getting ripe.” It’s why, at the age of 95, he continues to go to work each day, although the closing film credits tell us that, to the delight of his wife Jane, he has recently stopped going to work on Saturdays.

Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect premiered at the IFI Documentary Film Festival and will be screened at the Gate Cinema, Cork on October 11, and is on general release Oct 13.

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