Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment, on view at the Yale School of Architecture through May 6, celebrates the work of the Pritzker Prize-winning Roche, whose modernist origins are grounded in a desire to improve on the banality of the corporate condition.
Roche worked for many years in the office of Eero Saarinen, and after Saarinen’s death in 1961, created Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates with his colleague John Dinkeloo, an architect known for much of the technical innovation behind Saarinen’s sublime forms.
For Roche, architecture is part of a larger natural and man-made phenomenon, and many of his buildings respond directly to the giant scale of transportation networks and economic and environmental systems. As a favorite architect of corporate America, his commissions have also come with large-scale spatial requirements, allowing him to work with and test what he calls the “scale of the future” almost exclusively.
Despite the monumentality of much of his work, he consistently sought to create “more understandable environments”—and ultimately a happier, more productive worker—through an innovative integration of nature and by encouraging human interaction in generous communal spaces.
The first major work of the firm, the Oakland Museum in California, was designed as an integrated infrastructure of public museum and park, with inventive surfaces filling the site such as low lying walls that double as stairs, seating, park, and playground. In the John Deere & Company West Office Building, in Moline, Illinois, as well as the much-celebrated Ford Foundation Headquarters, in New York, the structure is conceptualized as a utopian community of like-minded individuals, with glass-walled offices providing a sense of interconnectivity, transparency, and voyeurism, across a plant-filled public atrium.
Ezra Stoller and KRJDA
In his Union Carbide Corporation World Headquarters, the view is turned outward to an untouched forest, with offices arranged in a cell-like growth pattern that maximizes light and minimizes distances to the parking garage and services housed in the building’s central spine. In a film intended for employees being transferred some 3,000 miles to the isolated complex in Danbury, Connecticut, Roche demonstrates how extensive surveys and analysis helped him arrive at this unusual configuration. A multitude of perspectives are integrated into the final design, and Roche portrays himself not as the mythical visionary architect, but as an organizer of the logical conclusion of this process. But the spatial logic was never fully tested. Within five years the devastating Bhopal chemical disaster and huge financial setbacks left the building 30% vacant. As with many of Roche’s commissions, the plans were optimistic about the darker side of the global economy that enabled them.
The exhibition is ingenuously designed to travel, and is for the most part comprised of large suspended photographs that hint at the scale of many of the projects on display but offer limited views of the buildings. Influenced by Roche’s own poetic use of reflective glass, mirrored mylar coats many surfaces, offering a shimmering reflection of building models and at times creating a not unpleasant interruption within the narrative sequence.
Among the highlights are the examples of slideshows Roche uses to present the analysis of spatial organization that leads him to his final forms. These power-point style slides often feature cut-paper diagrams and colorful painted mylar plans that reveal Roche as a masterful spatial thinker and also a fantastic storyteller.
These filmic slideshow moments reveal the thinking, processes, and person behind the architecture. Roche replaces the notion of architect-as-visionary with architect-as-organizer, acknowledging of the power of architecture to harness the many human and environmental forces that shape the built environment. Within the legacy of corporate modernism, this acknowledgement often feels like a rather visionary idea in itself.