Kevin Roche pictured in the 1960s with a model of the Ford Foundation’s 42nd Street headquarters in Manhattan.
By Michael Gray
In the field of architecture, crowded with outsized egos and fractious rivalries, Kevin Roche is an anomaly. Over the course of a career spanning seven decades, this Irish architect has designed more than two hundred significant buildings, received the greatest accolades his profession accords, and is held in the highest regard by his peers – yet his name is little known to the general public. Now, at the age of 95, the spotlight shines in his direction, and his life and work are celebrated in a new documentary by Irish filmmaker Mark Noonan that will premiere this week at the 2017 Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York City. Noonan’s feature-length bio charts Roche’s career ascent from a farming background in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, to UCD’s architecture school in Dublin, to apprenticeships in the United States under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen. Roche rose quickly through the ranks at Saarinen’s studio, and would ultimately achieve international renown in his own right before he had reached his middle years.
Modestly titled “Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect,” the film reveals how fate had thrust upon Roche the opportunity to ascend to the top of his profession following the sudden death of his employer and mentor, Eero Saarinen, in 1961. The Irish architect was the senior designer in Saarinen’s practice in Wisconsin, and, at the time of the principal’s untimely demise, the studio had a formidable array of iconic designs on the drawing boards. Among them were the TWA building in Idlewild (now John F. Kennedy) Airport, the CBS headquarters in Manhattan, and the Gateway Arch in St Louis, Mo. It fell to Roche to convince Saarinen’s formidable clients to invest their faith in the 39-year-old Irishman to complete these projects. He formed a new partnership with Saarinen colleague John Dinkeloo, and the pair went on to complete these works, and build a reputation that won further commissions from corporations across the U.S. and abroad.
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Roche the highest honor accorded in the profession
of architecture, the Pritzker Prize, in 1982.
Roche’s studio developed ideas of the integration of nature and the urban environment long before green design became part of the national dialogue. His 1964 design for the Ford Foundation on East 42nd Street with its lush garden atrium, open to the public, was decades ahead of its time. For the Oakland Museum in California, in 1966, Roche inverted the traditional concept of the cultural institution as a temple on a plinth, opting instead to spread the museum across four city blocks, with multiple low-key entrances and generous terrace and garden areas that weave through, under, and on top of the flat roofs of the museum buildings. New Yorkers may be more familiar with his work than they may realize – his designs in the city include Central Park Zoo and UN Plaza, and his studio has been evolving the master plan of the Metropolitan Museum for more than forty years, most notably, the Sackler Wing, which houses the Temple of Dendur.
Roche is still very much active in his practice in Connecticut, and it is fitting that this film tribute to him is made while he is still vital and working, to accept it. The industrious design veteran will atypically take an afternoon off to attend the US premier screening of the film on this Saturday, Nov. 4 at 4.15 p.m.
The screening will take place at ADFF’s home base, Cinépolis at 260 West 23rd St. in Manhattan, where the full roster of ADFF films will be presented, from Wednesday to Sunday.