Kevin Roche—a Pritzker Prize Laureate and AIA’s Gold Medalist in 1992—died last week at age 96. During his seven-decade long career Roche completed more than 200 projects: museums, performing arts centers, university buildings, research facilities. But one of his biggest impacts on architecture was his work on corporate headquarters around the globe. In this 2017 interview, Roche, a co-founder and design principal at Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, talks about his early days with Eero Saarinen, re-thinking corporate architecture, and what he learned from some four-legged friends back in his native Ireland.
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
KR: Kevin Roche
Tell me about your time working with Eero Saarinen and the impact he had on your development as an architect.
I joined Eero in 1950 and worked there until he died in 1961. He really did not do many corporate headquarters. The General Motors Technical Center was the major one, then John Deere. I learned everything I know about architecture from Eero. He was extraordinary, a great architect. He had great ambition and great energy. We worked 10 to 12 hours a day, every day of the year. The last five years of his life we traveled all over, together, and we had ongoing conversations about things. What he brought to every project was intense energy, intense investigation: What is it all about? What do we do? What is this?
Eero died before John Deere was finished; we completed the first building, and then did the West Building. I made a rectangular building, introducing the central garden. I did this subsequently at the Ford Foundation and others. The reason was to create a place for people to get together. The most important thing one can achieve in any building is to get people to communicate with each other. That’s really essential to our lives. We are not just individuals—we are part of a community. The old-time villages did that, and then we destroyed all that in the 19th century, when we started to build these vast expansions where there was no center, there is no community. John Deere was an effort to do that, and I think one of the first efforts in the corporate world.
Santander in Madrid is the largest headquarters you’ve done.
Yes, there are 10,000 people working there. What I tried to do here was to create a series of independent units, individual communities, each one with its own services. We have a community area with shops, dining possibilities; you can circulate around the public space outside.
Such all-inclusive environments seem like visions of utopias. Has the idea of creating a utopian environment been important in the design of these headquarters?
I wouldn’t use the word “utopia.” We have a short span of life, and we ask: What are we going to do? How am I going to live? How can I contribute to the life of the community? Why did they do it better in the 18th and 19th centuries, these little towns sprinkled throughout Europe? If you can do anything to improve a place—you can help make a community, and when you make a community, you make people more mature, you make them more aware of their responsibilities, and more aware that they have to stop killing each other. We all get to live, and we all get to share, and we all get to love. So when you have an opportunity to design something like this, you get your opportunity to add your effort. You can’t think of it as an abstraction. We’re in service to the people in the community that we are building for. You have to understand them. It’s very, very real. Your role is to serve the community. You have no other role but to serve. And we talk nonsense about aesthetics, but our role is really to serve the community and make a contribution. It’s so important for architects to understand what their responsibility is, building community and providing service. In architecture school they don’t stress that at all.
Did the idea that the architect should be dedicated to service, to community, start early in your life?
I went to boarding school in Ireland, and spent my summers working as a laborer. My father was the manager of a creamery that he established, and then expanded. Pigs and cattle—a huge farm. I learned how to lay bricks, how to weld, then gradually got to be in charge of a group of workmen. We made the piggeries from of a design I made. I really got to know those pigs—they were wonderful animals, they all knew me. Later on, when we got to the stage of having a bacon factory, I visited some and I was totally shattered—we were killing those animals to eat them for breakfast. Ridiculous. I never got to do the factory. I had a lot of interesting experiences, building a concrete block wall. I kept telling the workers they had to go faster, shouting at them. The wall fell down, and the workmen were all cursing, “That fuckin’ Roche.” So I learned a couple of good lessons about working with people.
Working with Eero, one of the most important lessons you learned was to dig deeply into what the problem is and to not get distracted with some other agenda.
Yes. I came to Saarinen after studying with Mies at IIT. Mies was wonderful and he rarely spoke. The preoccupation was with one small technical side of building. It had nothing to do with the people you were building for. The Farnsworth House is total nonsense as a house. It’s a beautiful thing, but you certainly couldn’t live in it.
What about the capacity of a corporate headquarters to have a spiritual quality? I think that quality is strong in projects such as John Deere, where the presence of nature is very strong. Natural light, natural materials, water—all of these elements are often important in conveying a sense spirituality.
It’s interesting. Could be. At Richardson-Vicks we had a wonderful wooded site, and I just didn’t want to cut down a tree. At the top of the hill it was relatively sparsely wooded, and that’s where we sited it. It was very simple, you looked out the windows on both sides with little indentations in the plan to give you corner offices. They did not want to make a big statement. We didn’t dig up the land. We were very respectful of what existed, and we inserted the building into what existed, as much as possible.
In these projects there is always a place for people to go, away from their desks, to decompress, where they can be by themselves, and those places often have a strong connection with sunlight, natural materials—all things we find in spiritual environments. Is there a spiritual function that these corporate buildings can provide, helping people to get out of their quotidian existence, if just for a moment’s respite?
You’d like to think there is. Freud reportedly said that you can’t separate man from nature. I use that many times to make a pitch to save trees. Like all simple things it’s enormously complex. The deeper you dig, the more profound it becomes. There was an early 20th-century American poet who wrote a poem that asked: “Where are we going, what’s it all about?” I remember reading that as a young boy. It’s a wonderful way to put it. This is a craving that we have, to establish ourselves as something outside of ourselves, instead of a bug on a blue marble.
A version of this interview appeared on ArchNewsNow in 2017. All images courtesy of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates.