American architect Kevin Roche passed away this past Friday, March 1 at the age of 96. He was born in 1922 in Dublin, Ireland, educated at the University College Dublin (1945) and Illinois Institute of Technology (1948). In 1966, he formed Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA). He has designed more than 200 buildings, including renovation to the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012), National Conference Centre in Dublin (2010), Lafayett Tower in Washington DC (2009), J.P. Morgan Headquarters in Manhattan (1992), Central Park Zoo in Manhattan (1988), The Knights of Columbus Building Headquarters in New Haven (1969), The Ford Foundation in Manhattan (1968), and Oakland Museum of California (1966). In 1982 he became the fourth Pritzker Prize winner and in 1993 was awarded the AIA Gold Medal. The following excerpt is from our 2011 interview at the architect’s office in Hamden, Connecticut.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Your name is pronounced differently – some say it with “sh” sound and others with “ch,” but you already made it clear by stating your first and last name. So it is Roche with a “ch.”
Kevin Roche: Yes, I am Irish. When Normans invaded Ireland they would say Roche in French (with a “sh”) and when I worked in France I was often called that way, but I say Roche (with a “ch”).
VB: It was your father who became your first client, is that right?
KR: Yes. Before the War, he started a farmers’ coop with about 500 farmers who would bring their milk to make cheese and butter. He was engaged in a lot of building projects and when I was in my teens, he asked me to design several of them. One was a cheese storage warehouse.
I grew up in the South of Ireland and no one in that small town had ever heard of an architect or what architects do. They heard about an engineer, but not an architect. The idea of designing buildings sounded very strange to them… but when I went to boarding school I started reading books in the library and came across The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin. That started my interest in architecture. Once I decided to design a church during study hour and I drew a church plan in the form of a cross. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. But when I showed it to my friend, he said: “You eejit, don’t you know that every church is designed in the form of a cross?!” [Laughs.]
VB: What a discovery!
KR: Then I got another project. There is a by-product of cheese making called whey. It is usually thrown away, but my father decided to feed pigs with it. So he asked me to design a piggery for several hundred pigs because I was a 17-year-old kid running around all summer doing nothing. My design was very functional, based on how the pigs would circulate and be fed. Then I supervised the construction. We were building a cement block wall and I kept asking the builders to build it higher and higher… until it suddenly collapsed… So I learned another lesson. [Laughs.]
VB: After graduating from the University College in Dublin in 1945, you worked in Dublin and then in London with Modernist architect, Maxwell Fry. In 1948, you applied for graduate studies at Harvard, Yale, and Illinois Institute of Technology and were accepted at all three schools. Why did you then choose to study under Mies van der Rohe at the IIT and not Gropius at Harvard, who was at one point Maxwell Fry’s partner?
KR: I really wanted to study with Mies. During the War, there was very little communication between countries so I didn’t see any buildings by Mies, but I read about him in the Architectural Review and I thought of him as somebody who really knew what he was doing. I didn’t have a sense that the English knew what they were doing. I remember Maxwell saying: “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to do this or that?”
VB: So you thought that the English were confused.
KR: Architecture is not just fun. It is a very serious business and Mies was really serious about it, so I was very interested in meeting him. I’m not sure why they accepted me, but they did. It was a very small class of just twelve students. Almost everybody was from a different country. It was very interesting. And there was Mies, seating leisurely in a chair with his long cigar, saying: “This is the way to do it and there is no other way to do it.” He was very serious and very clear about his views. It was very enlightening. In a way, it was rooted in classicism. I understood it because I was trained in classical architecture and his architecture is classical in its own way.
VB: How so?
KR: His work had nothing to do with people. And classical architecture has nothing to do with people. It is a celebration of something else. It is not a celebration of people. It is pure geometry just like the Bauhaus. It is not about creating a sense of community or how to make the life of an individual richer.
VB: I read how you dared to use a pitched roof in your design in Mies’ class. He must not have been amused about that.
KR: Well, I kind of did it as a revolt. He looked at me and said with a heavy German accent: “You could do dat. But I would not do dat, you know.”
VB: He did not have a habit of explaining things.
KR: No, but he was wonderful. I am still a big admirer of him. He really brought clarity to architecture and changed the way architecture was perceived. His architecture was the right response from a structural and mechanical point of view. I stayed with him for about six months. That was enough for me.
VB: And what would you say was the main lesson from Mies for you?
KR: Well, what he did was a good beginning, but it wasn’t the end of the story. We are still living. Architects have a tremendous responsibility to help people live in peace with each other.
VB: You never went back to school after Mies…
KR: No, I went straight to work. I went to New York because I wanted to work on the United Nations building at Harrison & Abramovitz. First, I was just helping file the drawings and then they let me draw.
VB: You then spent more than a decade as a designer in the Michigan office of Eero Saarinen, becoming in 1954 his principal design associate and assisted him on all of the projects from that time until his death in 1961. Was he your most influential mentor?
KR: Definitely, he really was. The 1950s were a very exciting time. Detroit then was much more active in terms of building than New York or Chicago because of the automobile industry. We were working on the General Motors Technical Center, which was the biggest project in the country. It was based on Mies’ philosophy. It was all about precision. The MIT Auditorium was also very exciting to work on. What I really learned from Eero was to be very methodical, keep asking questions and do a lot of research. When you keep doing it again and again, finally the idea comes. But it is based on a lot of research.
VB: Do you suggest that ideas would not come to him before any research? Just out of the blue?
VB: What about TWA? A pure beautiful form… It seems like the idea came first.
KR: Yes. That was one of the few examples. And, of course, the Yale Ice Rink was done very similarly. Although we did a lot of research before these ideas would come. He did have a very methodical approach. He had a good discipline to examine every aspect. I suppose, form generating is similar to music – you try to compose music and suddenly the melody comes. Here is the same. You work on a form and nothing fits until you see a vision and suddenly everything falls into a particular composition.
VB: In 1966, upon the completion of Saarinen's projects, you and John Dinkeloo changed the name of Eero Saarinen and Associates to Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates. Could you talk about restructuring the firm then?
KR: At that time, we completed all projects started by Eero and worked on new projects such as the Oakland Museum of Art and the Ford Foundation. We thought that in order to continue, we had to get new work. Otherwise, the firm would die and we would not be able to complete the work that was started. It was already a different firm. We changed the name when the last of his projects, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, was completed. John Dinkeloo [1918–81] was in charge of construction and I was the lead designer.
VB: Do you see buildings as an extension of a larger environment, as opposed to Saarinen’s idea of standalone, beautiful objects?
KR: Well, both. You can’t avoid seeing buildings as beautiful objects because that is what they are. But there should be more than just that. The community aspect is very important. There is still the abstract… Something has to get built and how do you imagine what that is? Architecture is still an art, as well as social service.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written nine books, including New York: Architectural Guide (DOM, 2019), Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: world tours of the work of Harry Seidler (since 2012), Emilio Ambasz (2017-18), Sergei Tchoban (since 2016), Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15), and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH. In 2018, he was a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has lectured at universities and museums in more than 30 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest conversations with the most innovative international architects. Since 2002, he interviewed over 300 architects. These intimate conversations are featured in the curator’s ongoing site-specific installations made up of voice recordings and thought-provoking quotes.