Ford Foundation Kevin Roche

Kevin Roche was the best corporate architect of the late 20th century. His work was more expressive, varied, and sited than that of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and the other alphabet-soup firms that produced the gridded homes for America’s executives. It was better put together and more spatial than that of Philip Johnson or even Henry Cobb, FAIA, who did most the office buildings in I.M. Pei, FAIA’s firm. Roche, who died on March 1 at age 96, turned headquarters into monuments that were also livable places. He almost made you believe that capitalism could be beautiful.

It is amazing how varied Roche’s work was. Building on the legacy of Eero Saarinen, whose office he and John Dinkeloo took over when Saarinen died in 1961, Roche started nearly every major job fresh. For each project, he came up with a form or set of volumes, composing them in a manner that responded not only to the particular client and site but also to some idea of what the commission could be beyond those starting conditions. At the Knights of Columbus Headquarters tower in New Haven, Conn., that meant putting all the services in perimeter cylinders clad in brown-red tile and then stretching Cor-Ten steel beams between those four posts, leaving completely open floor plates (around the remaining elevator core) as well as an unmistakable and unique image for the Knights as a result. For the 1985 headquarters for Cummins Engine Co. in Columbus, Ind., his design consisted of rotated, glass-clad squares cinched together with a concrete pergola, with courtyards inside and out turning the spaces into a true office garden.

Gunnar Klack The Knights of Columbus Headquarters tower
Jimmy Baikovicius The College Life Insurance Co. Headquarters

For the 1970 College Life Insurance Co. Headquarters outside of Indianapolis, Ind., Roche designed three truncated pyramids, each leaning against its core, whose rhythm and undefinable shapes turn them into abstract sculpture. In the bucolic suburbs around New York, he gave the General Foods Corp. a villa at a giant scale, set off against a pool you crossed to reach the domed entrance. Until the late 1980s, each of these designs was radically different, even if the suburban landscape or the insurance client might be similar.

Equally strong were some of Roche’s earlier cultural commissions, in particular the 1968 Oakland Museum, the landscraper he designed right after he and Dinkeloo took over the office and which provided a model for building a place-based community focus that more institutions should have followed. After that came the 1973 proto-ruin of the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Its stone and concrete masses display themselves in sun and shadow with little sense of scale, but with an ability to draw you in, focus you, and frame the art with their volumes. He used a similar strategy for the 1974 Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as well as at the University of Michigan in 1971, turning a performing arts center into a gridded rectangle sheltered, rather than held up, by oversized columns.

Joe Mabel The Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University

Not everything Roche designed was a work of genius. Like any large office, he produced—or, perhaps, let his atelier machinery produce—many less distinguished structures. In the 1980s, he took a postmodern turn and his adoption of classical elements chafed at his interest in the interplay of volume and form. His work for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art started out strong, in the mode of his earlier arts centers, with the slipping planes and sunlit volumes of the octagonal Lehman Pavilion, but later additions devolved into the much-too-large spaces containing the Temple of Dendur and the American Wing, both of which are held together by structure that was too thin to control the bombast of the scale.

Whatever the final result, however, the work that Roche and Dinkeloo’s office produced was always meticulously thought out. From Saarinen, he inherited not only the interest in shape making, but also the sense that every part of the building had to be considered, coordinated, and controlled to create a complete effect. A friend of mine once spent a summer on such tasks as making thimble-sized Time magazine facsimiles for equally tiny desks in giant models for one of the corporate headquarters.

Shutterstock The Lehman Pavilion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jean-Christophe Benoist The Temple of Dendur at the Met

A 360-degree video of the inside of the Temple of Dendur, created by the Met.

Courtesy Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates The American Wing at the Met

Kevin Roche’s architecture belonged to a world and an era. He worked for companies that made and sold things, who needed something that could serve as a marker for who they were and what they did in that cycle of production and consumption. He also developed abstractions and refinements of the forms he designed for their places of business as the cultural institutions they and their executives helped fund. I am not sure how he would have fared designing in Silicon Valley or working with computer-aided design tools. He was a box-and-grid man who somehow managed to get that limited array of forms—with a few curves, angles, and domes thrown in—to create an amazing expressiveness. Solid, sometimes stolid, his buildings didn’t want to go with the flow.

That made Roche’s buildings difficult to love, at least to many members of the general public. Most people don’t want to work in, or even look at, sculpture, even if they are sculptors themselves. They want something either neutral, or something that makes them feel at home. Kevin Roche’s architecture was the opposite. It made itself at home, stated itself as a fact, and asked for your admiration of it, its maker, and its commissioner. Most of the buildings still command that respect, and we should be grateful for that legacy.