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Kevin Roche in His Own Words

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Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment
June 16, 2012 - December 2, 2012

Kevin Roche has designed some of the most intriguing, provocative, and admired buildings of the past 50 years. The Museum’s newest exhibition Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment (opens June 16, 2012) showcases how his expansive definition of architecture and his embrace of systems-based research helped redefine the profession.

In 2008, while conducting research on the work of celebrated modernist Kevin Roche (b. 1922), Yale School of Architecture associate professor Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen conducted a series of interviews with the architect in his Hamden, Connecticut, home. She included selections from the interviews in Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment (Yale University Press, 2011), the monograph published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name. An excerpt, reprinted with permission from Yale University, is published here.

Eero Saarinen (left) and Kevin Roche (right) working on a model for the TWA Terminal, c. 1958
Courtesy of Eero Saarinen Collection; Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library

In the following passage, Kevin Roche recounts the status of various projects underway at Eero Saarinen and Associates when Saarinen’s untimely death, in 1961, catapulted Roche into the role of lead designer at the firm. Together with partners John Dinkeloo and Joseph Lacy, the office continued—even taking on new work—until the last project in process at the time of Saarinen’s death was brought to completion. When Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA) was formally launched in 1966, their partnership had already attracted considerable attention.

“There were a number of [unfinished] projects at that point in time of Eero’s work: CBS was still in the early planning stage. We had developed the structural idea with [the CEO, William S.] Bill [Paley], and the dimension between the core and the outside wall had been established at thirty-five feet. Central core had been pretty much settled. It was still very, very, early on. Of course the lobby and the exterior of the plaza—none of that had been done. The selection of the stone had not been made. That became a very exhausting exercise with both [Frank] Stanton, the company president, and Paley, neither of whom ever seemed to agree on anything. We went through, literally, hundreds of granite. We had a mock-up, and kept meeting. But finally that got resolved.

St. Louis Arch was in the early stages of design. The treatment of the structure had been developed with the stainless steel and the concrete—[Fred] Severud had participated very vigorously in that. The elevator had also been developed to a certain stage. But the platform had not, and of course the museum down below had not.

The initial concept for Bell Laboratories was in place, and the module was set and the general plan was established. The reflecting glass was really a story in itself. Life magazine had a front-page photograph of a man with reflecting sunglasses on, and it occurred to me: if you can put reflecting sunglasses on, why can’t you do that to a building and avoid the sun glare and the sun heat. So John got interested in that idea.

John was all for developing new products. Just to digress for a moment, we had decided—John and I had decided—in the mid-‘50s to start or own firm—as we called it, Product Development. We were going to develop all sorts of new products. We started doing competitions, and [Warren] Platner joined us briefly. Eero heard about it, and that was the end of that. He was pretty cross about it. Of course John was partner, I wasn’t. I wasn’t even a citizen; I wasn’t registered as an architect.

John ran with the reflecting glass idea and went to a small firm call Detroit Glass. One of the interesting things about Detroit postwar was that there were all kinds of small industries that had been set up around the automobile industry and the war effort. You could actually achieve almost anything because you had all of these entrepreneurial types with backyard firms who were gung-ho and eager to do things. So, Detroit Glass—and I don’t remember the man’s name—really ran with the idea.

Kevin Roche inserting the curtain wall into a scale model of the Ford Foundation Headquarters, c. 1964
Courtesy Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates

[In order to get it into large-scale production] Eero and John and I went to Libbey-Owens-Ford, which was in Toledo, and we secured a meeting with the chairman of the board. We took a long piece of this reflecting glass and we went into a pitch about this is the glass of the future, and all that. They were totally not interested—absolutely not. They almost threw us out. They had no interest whatsoever.

Pittsburgh Glass did pick it up subsequently, and it became a very large item in the evolution of glass and energy and all of those things. But it also, of course, raised the hackles of many of those people who didn’t like the idea of mirrored buildings. Then we subsequently, of course, used it in Deere.

And then there was Deere; Eero originally wanted to do a concrete building. Actually, Eero designed an inverted pyramid in concrete, and the CEO, [William A.] Hewitt, had no interest in that. So we developed this idea of a building just spanning across between the two hills. I was very interested in energy conservation, and sun penetration in the building, so we developed this sun-shading on the outside. Because I was just at that age where you want to do something and then destroy it, I decided why can’t we build a building that would rust and then fall down? Of course, you can’t say that to the owner—I said that to John. He immediately ran with the idea of this self-sealing rusting process, which, in fact, had been developed and was being used experimentally for towers for carrying power lines.

We went down to Bethlehem Steel and looked at a few of those. In typical John fashion, he sort of pursued it and got people [interested], hence the development of Cor-Ten and other rusting steel developments. So those were things that were in the process.

The first precast roof panels for Dulles Airport had been hung. So that was underway, but there had been no work done on the interior at all, so we had to pick that up. A special group was set up by Najeeb Halaby, who was the administrator of the FAA, which had Aline [Saarinen] and Stanley Marcus of all people on this review board, so we could develop the interiors, the ticketing, the merchandising, and all of those things that would go into the layout of the building.

From that, Stanley Marcus decided to hire us to do a store outside of Dallas. We went down there, and it turned out it wasn’t just a store, it was a whole shopping center . . .”

Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment is organized by the Yale School of Architecture.

ASSA ABLOY is the lead sponsor of Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment. Additional Support for the exhibition is provided by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Carolyn Brody, Property Group Partners, Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown, and an anonymous donor.

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