clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kevin Roche: NYC masterpieces of the modernist architect

New, 1 comment

The modernist architect left his imprint all over New York City

The Ford Foundation building on 42nd Street.
Max Touhey

Architect Kevin Roche, whose modernist imprint has been left all over New York City, died over the weekend at the age of 96. His architecture firm, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, confirmed the news, and issued a statement noting his many accomplishments: Roche was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, in 1982, along with the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1993, and countless honors from various universities and other organizations.

Roche was born in Ireland and studied architecture there—his earliest commissions were a cheese warehouse and piggeries—before moving to the United States to study under Mies van der Rohe. His architecture career began in earnest when he joined Eero Saarinen and Associates in 1950; it was there that he met his future partner, John Dinkeloo, and served as Saarinen’s right-hand man on several famous works, including the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport and the St. Louis Arch.

Roche and Dinkeloo struck out on their own in the 1960s, and went on to complete many corporate and cultural structures, including headquarters for JP Morgan Chase and Deere & Company, and buildings the Oakland Museum and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. (Dinkeloo died in 1981.)

But Roche’s work was never about simply bending to the whims of a high-powered client. “[I]f there is anything that characterizes most of Kevin Roche’s work more than crispness and sleekness,” Paul Goldberger wrote in 1987, “it is a kind of restless formal inventiveness and a tendency to seek to exploit the dramatic possibilities in any urban setting.” This is especially apparent in many of his works in New York City, from the Ford Foundation’s headquarters—a striking Cor-Ten steel cube that gives way to a lush indoor botanical garden—to the column-esque Postmodern skyscraper at 60 Wall Street.

Even if you’re not familiar with Roche’s name, you’re undoubtedly familiar with his work—here are some of his best-known NYC projects.

Roche finished the design for JFK Airport’s TWA Terminal after its original architect, Eero Saarinen, died in 1961.
Max Touhey

TWA Terminal

Roche spent the early part of his career working for Eero Saarinen and Associates, and met his future partner, John Dinkeloo, at the firm. After Saarinen’s untimely death in 1961, Roche became the guiding force behind some of the firm’s most iconic projects—including the “soaring, sinuous, sensuous, surreal” (as the AIA Guide to New York City puts it) TWA Terminal at JFK Airport.

His time working for Saarinen was enormously instructive; as Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times when Roche was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the architect’s body of work “combine[s] the Saarinen romanticism with a greater sense of discipline.” (Other Saarinen works that Roche completed include the CBS Building, aka “Black Rock,” and the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.)

The Ford Foundation’s headquarters was one of the first buildings completed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, in 1967.
Photo by Simon Luethi/Ford Foundation

Ford Foundation

Roche and Dinkeloo formed their own eponymous firm in 1966, and one of its earliest projects was the Midtown headquarters of the Ford Foundation, completed in 1967. With its “12 stories of mahogany-colored granite, Cor-Ten steel, and transparent glass,” along with an atrium and garden designed by Dan Kiley—one that has always been open to the public—“urban observers saw it as a gift,” according to Curbed’s Alexandra Lange. It was an example of the corporate architecture that Roche and Dinkeloo would become known for, but one that gave back to the city. And after a respectful renovation, the 50-year-old building, which became a NYC landmark in 1997, is still a stunner—and now more accessible to boot.

The Sackler Wing, home to the Temple of Dendur, was designed by Roche and added to the Met in 1979.

Metropolitan Museum of Art additions

Roche’s relationship with the Met goes back to the 1960s, when KRJDA first mapped out a masterplan to enlarge the institution, which was at the time a hodgepodge of smaller structures (by architects like Richard Morris Hunt and Calvert Vaux). Over the next few decades, Roche created several new additions that would end up becoming some of the museum’s most popular galleries.

Those additions—the American Wing, the roof garden, and the European sculpture wing—are meant to highlight the art; “maintain the high ceilings characteristic of the Metropolitan, while the proportions of the galleries vary, scaled appropriately to the works displayed, often with natural light from extensive skylights,” according to the architects. (The next time you visit the Temple of Dendur, think fondly of Roche.)

The mirrored lobby of the UN Plaza Hotel is now a New York City landmark.
Photo courtesy KRJDA

United Nations Plaza

In the 1970s, Roche and Dinkeloo worked on the master plan to expand the United Nations headquarters at the eastern edge of 42nd Street. They designed three new buildings—1 and 2 United Nations Plaza, and UNICEF’s HQ—that complemented the existing UN structures (notably the glass-covered Secretariat building) while adding a contemporary note to the complex. The buildings are “elegant scaleless envelopes of aluminum and glass,” per the AIA Guide.

Equally notable are the interiors of 1 UN Plaza (which is now the Millennium Hilton New York One UN Plaza hotel): Its mirrored lobby and Ambassador Grill are postmodern delights, and after a concerted effort by preservationists, they became NYC landmarks in 2017. “I was fascinated with the idea that mirrors doubled reality,” Roche told Curbed in 2016. “When we went to do the grill and the lobby, it was two spaces underground and a large lobby. We wanted to introduce the idea of a skylight even though we couldn’t have a skylight to give the impression of more access to the outdoors in the restaurant itself.”

60 Wall Street, at center, is a postmodern skyscraper in lower Manhattan.
Max Touhey

60 Wall Street

Speaking of postmodern delights, the skyscraper at 60 Wall Street, designed by KRJDA and opened in 1988, certainly qualifies. The building is an ’80s reinterpretation of classical forms, with heavy columns not only anchoring the base of the structure, but also used as a decorative element at its top. Even the building’s shape is classically-influenced; the AIA Guide says it “almost literally replicates the column itself.” The building is also home to one of Manhattan’s great privately owned public spaces, a soaring atrium that’s also lined with columns and plant life.

Roche designed both the original Museum of Jewish Heritage (in the foreground) and its 2002 addition.
Max Touhey

Museum of Jewish Heritage

This institution in Battery Park City, which opened in 1997 as a space to tell the stories of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, was designed by KRJDA and comprises two buildings. The older, hexagonal structure is designed that way for a reason: the six sides of the shape represent both the six million Jewish people killed in the Holocaust, as well as the six sides of a star of David. The newer addition, which opened in 2002, is more staid, but complements the smaller building in scale and materials.