Irish-born American modernist architect,
Pritzker Prize winner and AIA Gold Medal winner
A life-changing decision to leave Ireland behind led to a stellar career in the United States. Together with his mentor Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche changed the architectural landscape of corporate America.
The journey from Dublin to Chicago in 1948 was well-trodden for Irish immigrants. Kevin studied architecture in Dublin, and post-war America was where the action was, and it was the move to Chicago that shaped Kevin’s future. He spent a year at the Illinois Institute of Technology under Mies van der Rohe but instinctively knew it wasn’t a good fit. When the opportunity arose to join Wallace K. Harrison’s team working on the headquarters for the newly created United Nations in New York, he headed east and never looked back. This led to an interview in 1950 with Eero Saarinen, who was, at that time, still building his reputation. Roche upped sticks again; there is a theme here, a person of great insight and flexibility. Perhaps on paper, the move to a small office in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, might not make sense. However, Saarinen was beginning to receive commissions which would shape how the world would see mid-century corporate America, and corporate America wanted to work with people that could seal their reputation. Eero Saarinen’s team could shape that vision in glass and steel.
Roche was assigned to the General Motors Technical Center campus project, which involved building 24 modernist buildings. The practice grew substantially, from 10 to 160 employees and Roche rose through the ranks fast to ultimately become Design Director. Other commissions at this time included the Black Rock CBS Building and the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport.
Tragically and entirely unexpectedly, Saarinen died aged 51 in 1961 of a brain tumour. Roche and another associate in the practice, John Dinkeloo, became key figures together with Joseph Lacy, having worked so closely with their mentor, ensuring current projects were completed and that Saarinen’s vision was respected. Plans to move the practice to New Haven, Connecticut, went ahead. Three years later, important Saarinen projects were still being completed, including the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, Dulles International Airport and the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World Fair together with Charles and Ray Eames.
Roche and Dinkeloo had been fascinated with ‘glass technology’ for years. So the story goes, Kevin Roche saw a Life Magazine front cover featuring someone wearing reflective aviator sunglasses and expanded the idea with Dinkeloo into developing a similar glass effect suitable for buildings. That vision’s first public airing was for the Bell (telephone) Labs project (1957-62) which featured architectural mirrored glass. Another stellar example was the 1971 headquarters of College Life Insurance Company in Indianapolis.
“Is not the act of building an act of faith in the future, and of hope? Hope that the testimony of our civilization will be passed on to others, hope that what we are doing is not only sane and useful and beautiful, but a clear and true reflection of our own aspirations. And hope that it is an art, which will communicate with the future and touch those generations as we ourselves have been touched and moved by the past.”
Five years later, in 1966, the architectural firm KRJDA was created by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo; it was the natural successor for the team who worked with Eero Saarinen.
In Manhatten, Roche will be remembered for his commissions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; he used bold designs to expand older parts of the museum with new galleries, such as the Lehman Pavillion and the Temple of Dendur. Can there be any more iconic vision of New York than sitting on the Roche-designed front steps outside the museum’s entrance? Or wandering around the public space every visitor passes through.
His ability to pivot, to alter course, can be illustrated by a comment in his obituary in the New York Times about his approach to the 1993 expansion of the Jewish Museum, originally the Manhatten family home of Felix Warburg of the banking family. It’s noted that he ‘took the opposite tack‘; instead of bold glass expansions, he ‘mimicked the museum’s 1908 limestone facade by C. P. H. Gilbert so precisely that it became difficult to know where the old building, in its French Gothic chateau style, ended and where his began. ‘
That didn’t mean he’d given up on glass; Manhatten was now informed by architectural glass; Roche’s One United Nations Plaza used a blue/green glass to great effect, a notable example. Nor did it mean that he was now stuck on the East Coast. Columbus, Indiana has long been known as a town of great architectural importance in the development of American Modernism. J Irwin Miller, a committed fan of modernism and founder of Cummins Engining Company, had a close relationship with Eero Saarinen and his father. He’d commissioned Eero to build a local bank branch and his family home, the famed Miller House. Saarinen put Kevin Roche in charge of the project. After Saarinen’s sudden death, the relationship continued between Roche and Miller, and he accepted a commission to build a fabulous home for Xenia Simons Miller. This is notable, as aside from the Millers, Roche did not accept commissions for family homes.
From Kevin’s first commission, a piggery for his father’s farm in County Cork, to more than 200 modernist buildings across the world the award of the Pritzker Prize in 1982, Kevin Roche’s contribution to the American landscape is immense.
A small selection of the many projects he was involved in:
IBM Pavilion 1964 New York World Fair
John Deere HQ Miline, Illinois
Knights of Columbus HQ 1969
New Haven Coliseum 1972
Ford Foundation HQ
Central Park Zoo
Bouygues, Versailles France
Oakland Museum, California
College Life Insurance Company, Indiana
Convention Centre, Dublin
General Foods HQ
General Motors HQ
TWA Terminal JFK
Kevin Roche 1922-2019