Editor’s note: The Trustees and staff of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust mourn the passing of world-renowned architect Kevin Roche who designed the Museum as a symbol of memory and hope.
Kevin Roche, the Dublin-born American architect whose modernist buildings, at once bold and refined, gave striking new identities to corporations, museums and institutions around the world, died on Friday at his home in Guilford, Conn. He was 96.
His architectural firm, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, in Hamden, Conn., announced his death on its website.
Mr. Roche was one of the rare architects who was admired and trusted by corporate executives, museum boards and government officials, who allowed him wide leeway in expressing his restless formal imagination.
He was soft-spoken, with a distant echo of an Irish brogue, but it was an understated manner that belied the self-confidence radiated by the buildings he made for his patrons.
He created such distinctive works as the Ford Foundation headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, an elegant palazzo of dark metal and glass built around a garden atrium and finished in 1967; the Oakland Museum of California (1968), a museum whose terraced roof functions as a public park; the General Foods headquarters in Rye Brook, N.Y. (1982), a glass version of a grand classical villa; the sprawling headquarters of Union Carbide in Danbury, Conn. (1982), a futuristic machine for parking and working; and the headquarters of the J.P. Morgan Bank on Wall Street (1990), a skyscraper in the form of a classical column. And he put an indelible stamp on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1982, Mr. Roche was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, widely considered his profession’s highest honor. In its citation, the jury said, “In this mercurial age, when our fashions swing overnight from the severe to the ornate, from contempt for the past to nostalgia for imagined times that never were, Kevin Roche’s formidable body of work sometimes intersects fashion, sometimes lags fashion, and more often makes fashion.”
The jury acknowledged that his work was hard to characterize, and that his buildings outwardly had little in common. To Mr. Roche, however, there was nothing inconsistent about them; while he loved strong, memorable forms, he saw architecture as a matter of problem solving as much as shape making.
And he believed that because each building emerged out of a different situation, each called for something very different. It was a view he took from his mentor, Eero Saarinen, whose thriving architectural practice formed the foundation of Mr. Roche’s own.
Mr. Roche was hired by Saarinen in 1950, and before long he became the architect’s chief design associate, working on projects like the CBS Building in New York (known as Black Rock); the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport; Dulles International Airport, outside Washington; and the Ingalls Skating Rink at Yale University.
When Saarinen died suddenly in 1961 at 51, it fell to Mr. Roche and John Dinkeloo, another Saarinen lieutenant, to keep the office going and complete Saarinen’s numerous unfinished works. As they began to take on new projects of their own, the Saarinen office transitioned into Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates. Mr. Dinkeloo died in 1981at 63, after which Mr. Roche headed the office himself.
Mr. Roche was the favored architect of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; he designed all the wings of the museum’s expansion, beginning with the Lehman Pavilion, a sunken space with a central skylit gallery surrounded by a series of rooms, which opened in 1975.
His work at the Met also included the enormous glass pavilion enclosing the Temple of Dendur, completed in 1979, and he redesigned the front stairs and the plaza in front of the museum.
The angular glass forms of the Met additions contrasted sharply with the ornate limestone facades of the museum’s older sections. But when he was asked to take on the expansion of the Jewish Museum, across Fifth Avenue 10 blocks to the north, Mr. Roche took the opposite tack. When finished in 1993, his addition, to what was once the mansion of the banker Felix Warburg, mimicked the museum’s 1908 limestone facade by C. P. H. Gilbert so precisely that it became difficult to know where the old building, in its French Gothic chateau style, ended and where his began.
It was a further sign of Mr. Roche’s willingness to come up with widely different architectural responses to different architectural situations.
It was as a sculptor of modernist shapes in glass that Mr. Roche seemed most comfortable. He and Mr. Dinkeloo had been interested in the technology of glass since their early years with Saarinen, when Mr. Roche, looking at a pair of reflective sunglasses, proposed developing a reflective glass that could be used on buildings. One of his first major projects was a trio of glass pyramids that Mr. Roche built as the headquarters for College Life Insurance Company in Indianapolis, completed in 1971.
A few years later he designed One United Nations Plaza in New York, a sculptural skyscraper of gridded, blue-green reflective glass that is nearly as abstract as his pyramids. The tower was the home of the United Nations Plaza Hotel (now the Millennium Hilton New York One UN Plaza), for which Mr. Roche designed a set of public spaces based on an intricate design of trelliswork and mirrors, endlessly reflecting. (When management wanted to renovate the hotel’s restaurant and bar in 2015, preservationists protested that Mr. Roche’s design was one of the city’s finest interiors from the 1970s, and persuaded the hotel to reverse course.)