Kevin Roche, 1922-2019

Ulf Meyer
4. March 2019
Kevin Roche (Screenshot from "The Quiet Architect")

The Irish-born American architect Kevin Roche, recipient of the 1982 Pritzker Architecture Prize, has died at the age of 96.

On the way to Yale University’s campus, coming from New Haven train station, one cannot miss a building that is as defiantly Brutalist as it is inspired by Japanese metabolism. The Knights of Columbus Building serves as the headquarters of the Catholic Knights of Columbus-Union. With massive round stair towers in all four corners clad in dark brick, the skyscraper looks like a hybrid of mid-century modernism and medieval castle-tectonics. Steel girders between the corner cylinders serve as brise-soleil elements that protect the glass facades below from overheating. This strange skyscraper is one of the most famous buildings by architect Kevin Roche, who died Friday at the age of 96 at his home in Connecticut.

Knights of Columbus Building in New Haven, Connecticut, 1969 (Photo: Gunnar Klack/Flickr)

Born in Dublin in 1922, Roche emigrated to the United States in 1948 to finish his studies with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the famous Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. The deciding factor in Roche's career was the early and unexpected death of another European immigrant: Eero Saarinen. When Saarinen, arguably the most successful architect in the US, both artistically and commercially, died in 1961, he left a dozen commissions in his Detroit office, some of highest prominence, which now had to be executed. Roche (with his future partner John Dinkeloo) made the most of this unique opportunity. The elegant Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the TWA Terminal in New York and Dulles Airport near Washington DC are three of the most beautiful American buildings from the second half of the 20th century and Roche had his hands in all of them.

Ford Foundation in New York City, 1968 (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

After mastering this high-class "to-do list", the former Saarinen protege proved that he, too, can translate the zeitgeist of a whole generation into architecture of his own designs. His first stroke of genius was the headquarters of the Ford Foundation in New York of 1968, whose large, tree-lined atrium was the first interior space of its kind in Manhattan. Roche supplemented the increasingly vulgar and multiplied design formulas of the International Style with a humane public space. At the center of the mid-rise office building he designed a large garden courtyard – an oasis in the middle of the urban jungle. 

The CBS Tower, the Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, United Nations Plaza, Central Park Zoo and the Museum of Jewish History are the five landmark buildings that Roche designed in New York alone. The Irishman Roche shaped America's postwar architecture, especially for corporations and cultural institutions in an unfashionable, modest and generous way. In 1982, Roche received the Pritzker Prize for his life's work, a long career which spanned five decades. In his acceptance speech Roche said, "We should bend our will to create a civilization in which we can live at peace with nature and each other. To build well is an act of peace."

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