Monday 25 March 2019

Niamh Horan: 'Low-key architectural genius was anything but conventional'

Pritzker Prize-winning Kevin Roche had to go abroad for his sky-high vision to be celebrated, writes Niamh Horan

VISION: Celebrated architect Kevin Roche whose legacy lives on. Photo: Frank McGrath
VISION: Celebrated architect Kevin Roche whose legacy lives on. Photo: Frank McGrath
LANDMARK BUILDING: Convention Centre Dublin
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

When he was a child, Albert Einstein was called 'Biedermeier' by teachers. It means 'a little dull or unclever'. US General George S Patton was dyslexic and was held back by tutors. Thomas Edison recalled how, "I was always at the foot of the class", while Pablo Picasso left school at 10 because teachers gave up on him when he failed to remember the alphabet. They scoffed: "All he ever wanted to do was paint."

It can be hard to detect genius. Familiarity can hinder people from recognising those endowed with amazing talent, but often it's simply envy that gets in the way.

If ever a man proved that 'no prophet is accepted in his home town' it is the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kevin Roche, who died on March 1.

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Born in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, his abilities were hen-pecked and his ambition met with a mixture of perplexity and horror from his early days.

"Not only did they not know what an architect said or did, they didn't have any regard for what they did. You were going to go straight to hell," Roche recalled.

As a young student at UCD, he was once given an assignment to design a house and decided to finish it with a quirky spiral staircase. His tutor dismissed the presentation off-hand with the criticism that it would never accommodate the removal of a coffin. Roche laughed at the tale years later, tickled by the limits of the small Irish mind.

In his 20s, when he went abroad, he began to achieve recognition and fame. The great architect Eero Saarinen could see the young man's potential, despite a less-than-perfect first impression.

After arriving in New York and celebrating with a week of partying, Roche was summoned by the famous Finnish-American designer for an 8am meeting in his hotel to talk about a possible position. Roche, who had been up all night, nodded off as Saarinen waxed lyrical about the importance of the craft. Evidently the designer didn't notice, or pretended not to, continuing his soliloquy while the Irishman snoozed.

As Roche later recalled, he eventually woke with a start as Saarinen offered him a chance. He borrowed cash and bought an overnight train ticket, beginning work for Saarinen the next day. Within a few years he had risen to key associate at one of the more exciting architecture offices of the last century.

The body of work he produced is such that it is impossible to write an intelligent history of western architecture without including the work of Roche. In 1982 he was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the highest honour for a living architect.

But as for recognition on home soil? When he returned to design the Convention Centre Dublin (CCD) - his only building in Ireland - he was met with some resentment. One fellow architect recalled how "the architectural community were quite jealous of this guy coming in to design the first major public access building since the foundation of the State. They would have preferred if one of their own has been awarded the job".

When Roche expressed his vision to go skyward, he was shot down by Dublin City Council. He proposed a 17-storey building beside the CCD and recalled how: "People were yelling at me "you're building skyscrapers - you're going to ruin Dublin'." His belief was that the buildings should get higher as you go out towards the mouth of the River Liffey. Accustomed to working with city planners in Paris, Madrid, New York, Singapore and Tokyo, he felt there was too much political posturing and no real vision for Dublin.

When he received word his proposal had been turned down, he told property developer Johnny Ronan he was done. He felt ill-treated by public officialdom and remarked that it was better if he wasn't on the project. His name brought too much ire.

Ronan had to fly to the States to convince him to return. He agreed and together the pair built an iconic landmark, which Convention Centre chairman Dermod Dwyer explains "is now used on every news bulletin that goes out of the country as the face of modern Ireland".

As architectural and cultural historian Dr Ellen Rowley succinctly put it in The Quiet Architect, a documentary on Kevin's life: "The public love [it], but I think the architectural community are quite cynical about that building."

But what is perhaps more interesting is that over 20 years later, the Government and local planning authorities are finally starting to come around to Roche's way of thinking.

Plans have been announced to allow taller buildings at spaces of open water in Dublin, while chief executive of Dublin City Council Owen Keegan gave an interview to the Sunday Business Post recently, in which he echoed that immortal phrase "with the benefit of hindsight", there should possibly have been more vision in regard to height in the Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) fast-track planning areas.

"There's a valid criticism: was there a lack of ambition in the SDZs? I suppose when that was crafted six or seven years ago, they were different times and nobody had anticipated the scale of the recovery and the demand," he said. This is despite the fact that the IDA had expressed concern that "generally, heights were on the low side overall" as far back as 2013.

Global tech giant Salesforce, backed by the IDA, is now looking for two extra floors on its planned headquarters beside the Convention Centre Dublin. When tech tycoon Marc Benioff tweeted a picture of the new premises he described as a 'miracle' to his million followers, one US-based fan scoffed: "Is that what they call a 'tower' in Ireland?"

Whether city planners take heed remains to be seen, but Roche's death and the flood of tributes from the world's architectural greats, should act as a timely reminder to the powers that be.

Up until the end, Kevin Roche remained young at heart, enjoying boys' nights in with 101-year-old architect IM Pei (who built the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong), watching old black-and-white movies in his kitchen. When a group of Irish friends visited his home last year, the 96-year-old cooked them a steak dinner from scratch. He also had maintained his kindness and wicked sense of humour.

Dermod Dwyer recalls how, while building the CCD, on one occasion it was freezing in Dublin and Kevin noticed Dermod had no hat. "A couple of weeks later I received a Fedex parcel to my office. I opened it. It was a box from a well known men's hat shop in New York. Inside, wrapped carefully in layers of tissue, was a lovely black soft felt hat with flaps to cover your ears. It had the following note from Kevin: 'Dermod, a small gift to keep your head in Dublin's cold weather. And if you ever fall on hard times you can always use it to beg! Best, Kevin'."

In his last print interview, aged 95, Roche revealed he was still working six days a week (having finally cut it back from seven) and said he had no plans to retire: "I don't know why anyone would. It's the craziest thing you can do. For what? To sit around and play golf? Your mind would go to pieces… if I was sitting at home I would go nuts."

He also never gave up on his vision for his home country: "It is certainly possible to build taller buildings and still maintain the integrity of a city," he said. "If it is built with care so that it complements the lower plane you can create beautiful buildings and achieve good results. The only way to do it is to find locations along the river where you can build high rise so that they wouldn't infringe on the city around it."

It is perhaps most poignant that at the same that Roche drifted away, his divisive Convention Centre was awarded the golden prize for the best Convention Centre in the world - for the seventh year running.

But then again, the architect was never in it for the recognition. When I asked him how he would wish to be remembered, he replied: "Not at all."

His buildings will ensure there's no hope of that.

Architect Daniel Libeskind - best known for his project 1 World Trade Centre, the tower that has risen from the depths of Ground Zero in New York - gives his thoughts to the Sunday Independent following the death of Kevin Roche:

"Kevin Roche was a truly great architect. His works are thoughtful, substantial and built in a highly crafted way. His Ford Foundation building in Manhattan was an early inspiration for me during my student days. An architect whose loss will be compensated only by his many wonderful projects which will live on around the world."

Sunday Independent

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