In January 1961 Kevin Roche could not have imagined the changes which were to soon occur in his life. His boss, Eero Saarinen, was a successful and famous American architect, and his firm, Eero Saarinen Associates, was the preferred choice of corporate America. He had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, was the only architect to attend the Kennedy Presidential Inaugural at the White House, and was still just fifty-one years old. His realisation of projects, such as the General Motors Building, had led to a range of new commissions on the East Coast, including Dulles International Airport, Washington; the TWA Flight Centre at New York’s Idlewild (JFK) Airport; and the CBS Headquarters, New York. In order to focus on these commissions and in anticipation of future work he decided to move the entire office to the East Coast.
New Offices, New Haven
In early 1961 Kevin Roche, who at this stage was Saarinen’s chief collaborator, was assigned the task of finding a new location for the firm. Having explored possibilities from Boston to Washington, Roche came across a large Gilded Age house in Hamden, a New Haven suburb, which had been built for a cigar manufacturer. As New Haven was well located between cities on the East Coast corridor, homes in the area would be affordable for his staff, and he was already teaching part time at Yale University, Saarinen was immediately enthusiastic. Roche notes: ‘I got Eero over to have a look and he signed the deal on the house right then and there.’
Saarinen and Roche began planning an extension to the large house, set in its own grounds, to accommodate new offices on two floors and a large model-making workshop: ‘We were close to one-hundred-and-sixty people. It had become a whole community, and we tried to replicate this in Hamden, encouraging our staff to stay with us and maintain the same communal spirit.’
However, as he planned and coordinated the move, Roche could not have contemplated the changes that were to occur both for him and the practice as the year progressed. On Friday 1st September that year, Saarinen died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage just as the firm began the move from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to New Haven.
Roche had gone to a client meeting at CBS in New York on that day. During the meeting there was a discussion on the number of elevators which should be included in the new headquarters building. Kevin was called out of the meeting to take an urgent telephone call informing him that Saarinen had died during the course of brain surgery in a Detroit hospital: ‘I just went back into the meeting and said, matter-of-factly, that Eero has died. But I thought the thing that Eero would have appreciated most was that we went on with the meeting. He was very pragmatic; so we kept on with the meeting.’
That evening, Kevin travelled back to Bloomfield Hills in Michigan. The next day Aline (Saarinen’s widow), Joe Lacy and John Dinkeloo (his business partners), and Kevin Roche attended Eero Saarinen’s cremation and burial.
Completing Saarinen’s Projects
The following Monday the office continued working. ‘While everyone was in deep shock, everybody knew that Eero would appreciate it if we just kept going. And we realized we had this tremendous burden to bring all the work to completion.’
After Saarinen’s passing, John Dinkeloo, who had been Saarinen’s technical partner, chose Kevin Roche as his new chief designer and partner from an array of talented architects, including Cesar Pelli and Robert Venturi, among others. Together they completed the move to the new offices in Hamden and worked to complete the remaining design work on Saarinen’s major projects. Between 1961 and 1966 they oversaw the completion of Dulles International Airport, the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the John Deere Building, the TWA Flight Centre, and the CBS Headquarters.
Roche acknowledges that John Dinkeloo was the strong personality during this period. He was a forceful character and knew that the way to survive as an office, so that the rest of Saarinen’s projects could be completed, was to get additional work. Dinkeloo persuaded the organisers of the Oakland Museum competition that the firm should continue to compete after Saarinen’s death and that Roche should be the lead designer. The firm was competing against thirty-seven firms including Breuer, Gropius, Johnson, Rudolph and Nervi. To the surprise of the architectural world, Kevin Roche’s unique concept for the museum won the competition. Soon afterwards the practice was commissioned to design the Ford Foundation Building in New York
Roche Dinkeloo & Associates
The Oakland Museum and Ford Foundation projects immediately established the reputation of Roche and Dinkeloo. Until Saarinen’s untimely death, Saarinen and Roche worked side-by-side, spending almost every day together. He learnt from Saarinen’s unique methods of working and designing. Through Saarinen, Roche met some of the most powerful people of corporate America. These relationships continued after Saarinen’s death. The corporate leaders Roche encountered when travelling with Saarinen, advanced his interest in organisation and leadership which in turn contributed to the growing strength of the practice.
In accordance with Saarinen’s wishes, as expressed in his will, the office was renamed once his final projects were completed. John Dinkeloo died in 1981 but, loyal to his partner, Roche kept the office name and under the acronym KRJDA it continued.
In over seventy-five years of practice Roche both reinvented what it actually means to be an architect and pioneered much that the profession now takes for granted. He has been an exemplar of the architect as communicator, problem solver, and designer at both the small and large scale.
Since its inception Roche Dinkeloo has designed a variety of institutional and corporate projects, including thirty-eight corporate headquarters, eight museums, numerous research facilities, theatres, schools, factories, performing arts centres, hotels and private residences.
The office is a recipient of the AIA Firm Award, which is the highest honour bestowed on an architecture firm by the American Institute of Architects. In 1982, Kevin Roche was the recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize and in the recent past was the subject of the documentary film, Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect.
Kevin Roche has been in practice for seventy-five years and is now ninety-six years old. His youngest partners are in their mid-seventies and have decided to retire. So on 31st July 2018, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates LLC announced plans to conclude the operations of the firm. On 27th October, a KRJDA reunion celebration was held at the firm’s offices at 20 Davis Street, Hamden just outside New Haven. Recognising all who contributed to fifty-two years of architectural achievement at the firm Kevin Roche said: ‘I have had the great pleasure in my life to pursue my passion for architecture and design and to work with many talented people. … As we enter the latter stages of our work on the Capital Crossing project, I feel it is the right time to wind up our operations and share our history with future generations.’
Roche Dinkeloo plans to no longer pursue new business and remains dedicated to the final design work and construction administration of the Capital Crossing project, a 2,200,000 ft² development occupying the air rights to the 6.8 acres above Interstate 395 in Washington, D.C. The firm will also focus on preserving its portfolio of design work by donating over five decades of papers to the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the Yale University Library. The material will join the Eero Saarinen papers previously donated by Roche Dinkeloo. It will be a comprehensive record of one of the most influential architects of the 20th century.
This article was originally printed in Architecture Ireland, no. 302, 2018.