Kevin Roche, the Dublin-born architect who died on Friday, at the age of 96, was a designer of modernist buildings, at once bold and refined, that gave striking new identities to corporations, museums and institutions around the world.
He was one of the rare architects who was admired and trusted by corporate executives, museum boards and government officials, who allowed him wide leeway in expressing his restless formal imagination. He was softly spoken, with a distant echo of an Irish accent, but it was an understated manner that belied the self-confidence that the buildings he made for his patrons radiated.
He created such distinctive works as the Ford Foundation headquarters in midtown Manhattan, an elegant palazzo of dark metal and glass built around a garden atrium and finished in 1967; the Oakland Museum of California (1968), a museum whose terraced roof functions as a public park; the General Foods headquarters in Rye Brook, New York (1982), a glass version of a grand classical villa; the sprawling headquarters of Union Carbide in Danbury, Connecticut (1982), a futuristic machine for parking and working; the headquarters of the JP Morgan Bank on Wall Street (1990), a skyscraper in the form of a classical column; and Convention Centre Dublin (2010), his only major Irish project. And he put an indelible stamp on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1982 Roche was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, widely considered his profession’s highest honour. In its citation the jury said, “In this mercurial age, when our fashions swing overnight from the severe to the ornate, from contempt for the past to nostalgia for imagined times that never were, Kevin Roche’s formidable body of work sometimes intersects fashion, sometimes lags fashion, and more often makes fashion.”
In 1993 Roche was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, the highest honour the institute bestows. When Roche received the Pritzker, in 1982, he delivered an acceptance speech that displayed both his capacity for self-deprecating humor and his belief that architecture was a noble pursuit. He quoted from a letter he had received complaining that his work was “moribund” and that the Pritzker jury “must be out of their minds” to have given him the prize.
He could only respond, he said, by asking: “Is not the act of building an act of faith in the future, and of hope? Hope that the testimony of our civilisation will be passed on to others, hope that what we are doing is not only sane and useful and beautiful, but a clear and true reflection of our own aspirations. And hope that it is an art, which will communicate with the future and touch those generations as we ourselves have been touched and moved by the past.” – New York Times, with additional details from The Irish Times archive.