The opening scene of the 2017 documentary Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect takes place in Roche’s office. It’s fitting that this film introduces us to its subject through his practice and not his built work. The camera glides past rolls of drawings, flat files, and stick sets labeled with some of Roche’s most memorable achievements: the Ford Foundation building, the Union Carbide headquarters, additions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Roche’s first words aren’t about architecture; they’re about the insanity—as he sees it—of retirement. You’re not alive unless your mind is active, he remarks. You’re just a vegetable.
Through the film, created by director Mark Noonan, producer John Flahive, and cinematographer Kate McCullough (among many others), we come to know Roche as a workaholic, passionately dedicated to architecture. It’s this dimension that Noonan told me most attracted him to a film project suggested by Flahive: “How [Roche has] chosen to live his life, and his almost religious dedication to his work—that is where my curiosity initially resided.”
The film portrays Roche’s architecture, of course, but that’s not necessarily its primary focus. It’s really more about a young man who grows up in the 1920s and ’30s in a small town at the very heart of Ireland; studies architecture in Dublin at University College (where Noonan would later study architecture); works in Dublin and London; travels to the U.S. to continue his education at the Illinois Institute of Technology under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; realizes he shares almost nothing about his would-be mentor’s architectural worldview; and somewhat miraculously lands at the office of Eero Saarinen in 1950, quickly becoming his right-hand apprentice and collaborator. By the time of Saarinen’s unexpected death in 1961, Roche was heir apparent of the practice and completed a dozen landmark Saarinen projects, such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C. In 1966, he and John Dinkeloo founded their own practice, which initially thrived with many projects for repeat clients. So the documentary is more a film about finding your place in the world—and about how you might practice architecture with a goal of helping other people make their place in the world.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Roche was very much like Saarinen when it came to a life consumed by architecture. There are stories about Saarinen’s myopic work habits, such as showing up at the office one morning and wondering where everyone was, only to discover it was Christmas. The film casts Roche in a similar role. He learns of Saarinen’s sudden death during a client meeting in New York for CBS’s headquarters and decides to go on with it because “that’s what Eero would do.” He met his future spouse, Jane, at Saarinen’s practice, and by the end of the film we learn that, then age 93, Roche had agreed to no longer go to the office on Saturdays, to her delight. (In a development after the film’s release, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates announced last July that the firm would pursue no more new work and would focus on completing current projects, winding down the nearly 60-year-old practice. Plans are now under way for the firm to establish a study center foundation within the next year or so that will focus on Roche’s contributions to architecture.)
The film explores a peculiar equation in the life of Roche, winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the AIA Gold Medal, and numerous other accolades and honors. Several colleagues—including Robert A.M. Stern, Cesar Pelli, and Richard Meier—note Roche’s apparent absence of self-regard; Stern describes Roche’s as a “leprechaun’s version of an ego.” Roche shakes his head when someone off-camera asks if he’s a “starchitect.” Noonan and Flahive told me that it took a little work to bring the architect around to the idea of being the subject of a documentary, whose title is a twist on a story by Irish author Maurice Walsh, which became the John Ford film The Quiet Man. In several scenes, Roche softly offers gentle caution that architects aren’t necessarily the most important players. He expresses what appears to be heartfelt respect for the people who construct the architecture. “The architect is one thing,” Roche says, “but the guys who are building it are the real thing.”
Ultimately, the film communicates Roche’s empathy for those he designs for—not just the clients, but also the people who use the buildings. Early in the film, the Ford Foundation makes its appearance (Roche’s architecture is portrayed beautifully through McCullough’s lens, often with a soft focus). The architect explains that the point of creating an office building around a garden is to give the occupants a connection with nature in the city—and with each other across the garden. While designing the building, Roche realized that most office workers interact with each other only at the elevator. The architecture helps them to have ongoing awareness of each other and with nature throughout the day. This quality appears in much of the architecture shown in the film: the Oakland Museum, with its heavily planted urban garden; the low-scale Cummins corporate headquarters, boasting oases of greenery; the densely wooded setting around Union Carbide. If I have a criticism of the film, it is that it doesn’t include many perspectives from people who interact with Roche’s architecture, beyond clients who have hired him.
Architecture typically doesn’t move around much, which makes it something less than an ideal focus for film; the camera needs to travel to render any of architecture’s power, and even then it’s a weak substitute. Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect wisely focuses on the human dimension of Roche’s practice as an architect—the thing that to him seems to make it most meaningful. Roche’s lifelong dedication to, and never losing sight of, the fact that architecture is ultimately about the people makes this architect in his centennial decade a teacher and role model to practitioners today, in his own quiet way.
Featured image: Kevin Roche, working on the model for the Ford Foundation building; image courtesy of Roche Dinkeloo.