It's a biography that links together two of the biggest names in modern architecture, Saarinen and Mies, and contains a sprawling list of important commissions and iconic buildings, from the Gateway Arch to the Ford Foundation headquarters. Yet the life of Irish-born, Pritzker-winning architect Kevin Roche, who studied with the famous German minimalist, collaborated with the Finnish genius and oversaw the completion of many of his masterpieces, and to this day, still heads a successful firm he started with late partner John Dinkeloo, is relatively unknown compared to modern starchitects and midcentury legends. A forthcoming documentary, The Quiet Architect, hopes to remedy that by exposing his work to a wider audience, taking a philosophical look at how the 93-year-old Roche operates. Producer John Flahive discussed the film, set to finish this year and obtain wider release next winter, and why Roche can be criminally underrated compared to his peers.
How does Roche's career, and the issues and design challenges he tackled, remain relevant today?
"Kevin's one of the few architects who's still around from the '50s, '60s and '70s, who can look back at his career and explain how buildings have changed as technology has changed. Most documentaries about Kevin talk about the Ford Foundation and his work finishing Saarinen's designs after he died. For our film, we're rediscovering the projects that haven't been written about much, such as the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University, and his other buildings in New York, such as the headquarters for Deutsche Bank in the Financial District and 31 W. 52nd Street. These are great works; he didn't really have a particular style, he always tried to respond to the situation and changes in fashion. We're examining how his work evolved with the times."
How was he viewed in Ireland? I didn't see many finished projects there in his list of projects.
"He's only finished one building in Dublin, the convention center, that was completed in 2010. It took about 15 years from being approached to opening, since he designed it before the financial crisis. He's best known for that, and it's become a landmark for the city, but he's always been appreciated by Ireland's small architectural community."
Speaking to him at age 93, how does he view his legacy?
"He's very modest. He's not interested in that kind of thing, and wasn't very forthcoming. He's still very involved in his firm, in the day-to-day workings—many of the interviews were at his office. He's a bit like Niemeyer, in that he'll probably work on projects up until his death."
He was obviously liked by Eero Saarinen, but what was his relationship like with Mies? He's one of the few remaining person with those direct connections to those two architects alive today.
"He said his relationship with Mies was a difficult one. They never saw eye to eye. There was a clash of ways of looking at things. When Kevin was studying at IIT, he was asked to design a roof, and went with a pitched roof, due to the environment and the snow. Mies wanted a flat roof for stylistic reasons. Kevin never finished the course. Obviously, his relationship with Saarinen was much different; it was much more collegial."
Roche is relatively unknown for his great body of work, such as the Ford Foundation headquarters, and extensive prizes. =Why do you think that is?
"There are many reasons. It's hard to boil his work down to a singular style. He's never been great at PR. And he kind of predates the era of starchitects, such as Norman Foster."
Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect is being produced by Wavelength Pictures.
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