Like his mentor Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche could design buildings of startling originality. His Ford Foundation headquarters, on 42nd Street in Manhattan, completed in 1967, arrays glass-walled offices around a spectacular 12-story atrium. His Oakland Museum of Art, which opened in 1969, conceals galleries in planted terraces cascading down a hill. And his Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., completed in 1973, is a collection of discrete concrete boxes, almost heroic in their simplicity.
Roche, who died on Friday at 96, will be remembered for those iconic buildings, and for the more than 200 other projects realized by his firm Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA). "It would be impossible to write a history of 20th-century architecture without Kevin Roche," Robert A.M. Stern said in the 2017 documentary Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect. Roche won the Pritzker Prize in 1982 and the AIA Gold Medal in 1993.
In a more-than-70-year career designing corporate, institutional and commercial buildings, however, Roche rarely matched the heights of Wesleyan, Oakland and Ford. Reviewing a 2011 exhibition of Roche‚Äôs work, Belmont Freeman, an architect and critic, described his path from those early projects ‚Äúthrough the increasingly gargantuan suburban corporate buildings of the 1970s and ‚Äô80s and the sometimes banal developer projects of more recent years.‚ÄĚ At a symposium associated with the exhibition, Roche himself commented that the previous speakers ‚Äúhad made him feel like he had retired in 1980.‚ÄĚ
In fact, Roche continued working almost until his death. His career included a 40-year relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hired in 1967 to devise a master plan for the museum, he and his partner John Dinkeloo created a wide stairway in front of the building, replacing McKim, Mead & White‚Äôs narrower flight. John Morris Dixon, the longtime editor of Progressive Architecture magazine, called the new steps ‚Äúone of New York‚Äôs architectural coups.‚ÄĚ Later, the firm completed the the pyramidal Lehman Wing and the glass-walled container for the Temple of Dendur, among other additions to the museum, which together nearly doubled the building‚Äôs size. New galleries for Greek and Roman art‚ÄĒreplacing an old cafeteria‚ÄĒopened to rave reviews in 2007.
Some of his buildings, like the Knights of Columbus Tower in New Haven (1969), corsetted by four massive round piers, were lightning rods for criticism, and the quality of the firm‚Äôs work in recent decades was uneven. Paul Goldberger, writing in the Times, praised 1 United Nations Plaza, the hotel and office tower completed in 1976, as ‚Äúan exquisite minimalist sculpture.‚ÄĚ But Roche‚Äôs Egyptian-inspired headquarters for E.F. Hutton on West 53d Street, completed in 1987, was, according to Goldberger, ‚Äúpretentious and overblown.‚ÄĚ
Eamonn Kevin Roche himself was never either of those things. Born in Dublin in 1922, he was raised in Mitchelstown, County Cork, where, he said in the 2017 documentary, ‚ÄúNobody had ever heard of an architect.‚ÄĚ But his father, a successful farmer, asked Roche to design a pigsty, which he did. ‚ÄúThe pigs loved it,‚ÄĚ he recalled‚ÄĒand Roche was on his way.
During World War II, he earned an architecture degree from the National University of Ireland. In 1948, while working briefly for architects in Dublin and London, he saw the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in magazines and resolved to study at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where Mies presided. Roche arrived there in 1948 but, finding Mies ‚Äúuncommunicative,‚ÄĚ lasted only one semester.