The quiet architect

Kevin with Ford Model 2b (3012x2428).jpg

By Michelle Newman

At the age of 95, world-renowned architect Kevin Roche has no plans of slowing down. The Irish born, American Pritzker Prize winner has made his mark on the building industry since his arrival to the United States in the late 1940s’, winning countess awards for his efforts. A new documentary, The Quiet Architect details his career thus far and here, in his own words, Kevin describes his idyllic youth, his first taste of Chicago and why incorporating nature into his work is so important.   

I was born in Dublin on June 14, 1922. I believe my father, Eamon, was in jail at the time because he was a member of the first Irish Parliament. He was jailed twice; once by the English and once by Fine Gale so after that he got a job as a creamery manager in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, where I grew up.

My father was very successful with the creamery and built it into a very large industry. When I was a teenager he had a large construction group working in the creamery and I was an apprentice myself to a carpenter or to a tool maker or a welder, so I learned a lot of trades as a young man. 

I think that’s where my love for architecture came from, that and building a piggery for about 800 pigs. I did it in a way that would make the pigs happy, I took that as a key to what you do in architecture. 

Back then nobody knew what an architect was and I got some very negative reactions at the start. They used to say, ‘What does an architect do? Sure he just stands around and looks at the people building the building,’ but it didn’t affect me at all one way or the other.

After graduating from University College in Dublin, three years later in 1948 I left for America. 

One of the most famous architects in the world was a German called Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, I decided I wanted to study with him at the  Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. 

I flew from Shannon to Iceland to Boston, then to Cleveland, then to Toledo and finally I arrived in Chicago after spending about two days on a plane. I had a long trip. 

I always thought America was a little crazy or it appeared to be that way. The night I landed at the airport, I got in a cab with another guy and we were dropped at 23rdStreet south of Chicago. It was almost midnight and you couldn’t find a more dangerous place in the world. 

Fortunately, there were a few students around and one of them took me in and put me up in his room so I had the first night free! 

In 1950 I joined Eero Saarinen and Associates, with whom I worked for 10 years. He died very young and it kind of fell to me to pick up the pieces. There were major projects that he had been working on that I had to finish, so that really put me right down to work straight away. 

About five years or so later another member of the firm and I decided we would continue the firm by our own name Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates. 

We were fortunate enough to get one of the hottest projects that was in the offering those days which was a museum for the city of Oakland [the Oakland Museum of California] and we were under way. 

When designing a building first of all you have to see what is it for, can you produce a building that will best serve the people who will use it, what kind of activity will go on, where it is and how does it relate to the rest of its environment in terms of height or dimension and material. These are all questions that must be answered. I think it’s always very nice to incorporate nature, because we tend to cut down everything in sight, but I like to bring it back in to the building. 

The Convention Centre in Dublin is the only building I’ve designed in Ireland. That was a tough one and took about eight years, but I’m still available! 

There are many periods in various cultures with celebrated work, but when you look at the Greeks and what they did it’s an amazing achievement and you wonder, ‘How on earth did they do that?’ How they’ve had so much influence everywhere in the rest of the world.

Architecture has changed over time, it used to be more an architect sort of celebrating him or herself saying, ‘I’m this great person.’ That has changed now and people are getting more interested and concerned with the purpose of the building. I have no interest in the glory stuff I just like to do the building. It’s a great joy to do a good building. 

The Quiet Architect is available to buy on DVD

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