Irish-American with a flair for innovation

Irish-American with a flair for innovation Kevin Roche with a Ford model

The Quiet
 Architect (PG)

I don’t tend to get very worked up about buildings. I’ve always seen them as things you go into when you want to get in out of the rain. This fascinating documentary from Mark Noonan made me re-think that.

Kevin Roche is Irish but he’s spent most of his life ‘stateside’. He designed over 300 buildings. He’s also won the coveted Pritzker Prize – architecture’s Pulitzer.

His first job was building a piggery. It set the tone for an eclectic future.

Kevin never cared about fame, about being a ‘starchitect’. He came back to Ireland during the boom to design Dublin’s Convention Centre. After a few hiccups it opened in 2010. This was never my favourite building, I have to say. I think it looks like two blocks squeezing out an orb. But I love most of his other work.

Kevin was always ahead of the curve. He pioneered the idea of bringing nature into vast urban complexes. He once put a garden on top of a building. As Art Garfunkel might say: “So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.”

The problem with some architects, he thinks, is that they forget the buildings they’re designing are actually going to have people in them. Whenever Kevin gets a commission he puts them first. Where did they hang their hats? What door did they come in?


He once put a spiral staircase in a living-room. He thought it would look stylish. The owner of the building wasn’t impressed. He said, “How would you get a coffin down that?” Kevin agreed it was a good point. How many architects think about funerals when they’re drawing up their plans?

When he was designing a female restroom another time – that’s American for toilet – a woman said to him: “Where do I leave my purse?” (I have to admit that consideration would have escaped me too).

Kevin listens to his customers. That’s why he’s been so sought after all his life. “I don’t think of him as a builder of monuments,” a colleague says in the film, “I think of him as a problem solver.”

He enjoys challenges. His buildings are like his babies. They come in all shapes and sizes. His mind is always working overtime. He built a synagogue once that had six sides on it. This was to designate the Holocaust. “It was a simple idea,” he says, “but I thought it was appropriate. Six million Jews perished.”

To a man like this, life outside work is almost a side issue.

The woman who eventually became his wife had to work hard to get him to bring her on their first date. She also, according to Kevin, decided when they should be married.  (She disputes this.)

One hopes Kevin will continue designing beautiful buildings for a long time to come. He hates the idea of retiring but at 95 he realises he has to slow down a bit.

He’s just done that. He’s taking Saturdays off.

Very Good ****

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