Star­chi­tect’s grand de­signs fi­nally get big screen credit

A man left out in the cold by his own peo­ple, Kevin Roche is now cel­e­brated world­wide, writes Ni­amh Ho­ran

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

IN 1982, Kevin Roche stood at a podium to de­liver his ac­cep­tance speech af­ter re­ceiv­ing the Pritzker Prize, of­ten con­sid­ered the No­bel Prize of ar­chi­tec­ture.

It was a per­fect mo­ment for a lit­tle bit of self­con­grat­u­la­tion, but in­stead Roche sim­ply took a slip of pa­per from his pocket and read aloud a let­ter an irate woman had sent him tear­ing apart his life’s work and declar­ing that the mem­bers of the Pritzker com­mit­tee “must be out of their minds”. He re­turned the note to his pocket and qui­etly walked off the stage.

It was a typ­i­cal act of hu­mour and hu­mil­ity by a man who, though still rel­a­tively un­known in Ire­land, has been ac­knowl­edged as a key player in the his­tory of Amer­i­can and West­ern ar­chi­tec­ture.

Hav­ing won in­nu­mer­able awards for his de­signs of more than 300 ma­jor build­ings, among them the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects — Gold Medal Award, the Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Let­ters Gold Medal Award for Ar­chi­tec­ture, and the French Academie d’Ar­chi­tec­ture — Grand Gold Medal, this week a film about his life’s work fi­nally opens in Ir­ish cin­e­mas.

It tells the story of a young boy from Mitchel­stown, Co Cork who left the fam­ily’s pig farm to be­come an ar­chi­tect. He de­scribes how his am­bi­tion was met with a mix­ture of per­plex­ity and hor­ror.

“Not only did they not know what an ar­chi­tec­ture said or did, they didn’t have any re­gard for what they did. You were go­ing to go straight to hell,” he said.

He moved to Amer­ica to ful­fil his dreams, be­liev­ing his duty, as a mod­ern ar­chi­tect, was to “build build­ings for peo­ple”. It sounds ob­vi­ous, but in an age of soul­less con­crete blocks in which most work­ers only get a chance to share small-talk in the lift, his work was rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

One of his most fa­mous works, the Ford Foun­da­tion Head­quar­ters in New York, was the first of the ‘grand atrium build­ings’ in which Roche cre­ated a ‘green space in the city’. As he points out: “Freud estab­lished the idea that it is so im­por­tant for hu­man san­ity to be in touch with na­ture”.

The ar­chi­tect set about bring­ing sub-trop­i­cal gar­dens in­doors that would cre­ate “recre­ational pauses” for work­ers.

Upon com­ple­tion, Ada Louise Huxtable, the fa­mous critic for the New York Times, de­scribed the Ford Foun­da­tion’s gar­den as “per­haps the most ro­man­tic en­vi­ron­ment ever de­vised by a cor­po­rate man”.

Else­where, Roche also turned the idea of the tra­di­tional mu­seum on its head. Tasked with build­ing the Oak­land Mu­seum of Cal­i­for­nia, he re­jected ‘stand-off­ish’ grand ed­i­fices that of­ten re­quire visi­tors to walk up in­tim­i­dat­ing mar­ble stair­cases to view works of art. In­stead, he cre­ated a mu­seum as an ur­ban park that al­lowed peo­ple to en­ter from all sides. Roche de­scribed how “peo­ple who would never go to a mu­seum” could sit in the sur­round­ing gar­dens and grad­u­ally wan­der in­side.

“It was an in­duce­ment to get them to come in, with­out re­al­is­ing that they were step­ping on the thresh­old of a cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said.

In New York, his pow­er­ful ode to the vic­tims of the Holo­caust can be seen in the Mu­seum of Jewish Her­itage — its six sides rep­re­sent­ing the six points of the Star of David and the six mil­lion vic­tims who per­ished. His work also in­cludes the TWA Ter­mi­nal at JFK Air­port, New York, the Gate­way Arch in St Louis, Mis­souri and 40 years de­sign­ing new gal­leries for The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York. At 95, he has no in­ten­tion of ever re­tir­ing from his six days a week at the of­fice,

The film, iron­i­cally re­leased in the same week that the Gov­ern­ment fi­nally an­nounced its plans to al­low taller build­ings in Dublin, also de­tails Roche’s bat­tle at the hands of the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. The ar­chi­tect re­calls the re­sent­ment which met him when he re­turned to work in his home coun­try. “Peo­ple were yelling at me you’re build­ing sky­scrapers. You’re go­ing to ruin Dublin,” he ex­plained, of his pro­pos­als for a 17-storey build­ing at the rear of the Con­ven­tion Cen­tre.

Frus­trated with the process, he left Ire­land but was con­vinced to re­turn by prop­erty de­vel­oper Johnny Ro­nan before fi­nally com­plet­ing the Con­ven­tion Cen­tre 10 years later. It is now con­sid­ered one of Dublin’s most fa­mous and most pho­tographed land­marks. Speak­ing on the film’s open­ing night, ar­chi­tec­tural critic Shane O’Toole ex­pressed his frus­tra­tion at the dis­re­gard for Roche in his na­tive land.

“It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary that he has never been con­sid­ered a can­di­date for Aos­dana. A cul­tural prac­ti­tioner in any other field of the Arts in Ire­land who is 95 years of age with a global rep­u­ta­tion equiv­a­lent of the No­bel Prize... to still be left out in the cold by the artis­tic es­tab­lish­ment would be im­plau­si­ble.” Kevin Roche: The Quiet Ar­chi­tect opens at IFI Cin­e­mas on Oc­to­ber 13, with ad­di­tional screen­ings na­tion­wide

IN­NO­VA­TIVE: Clock­wise, from top, Kevin Roche; Ford Foun­da­tion build­ing in New York; Col­lege Life In­sur­ance HQ, In­di­anapo­lis; and the Con­ven­tion Cen­tre

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