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
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