09. March 2018

Mark Noonan’s documentary film presents a portrait of the renowned architect Kevin Roche. His oeuvre includes some impressive museum buildings.

By Jens Balkenborg

This is what Kevin Roche explains at one point in Mark Noonan’s documentary film “The quiet architect”. It sounds like one of those empty phrases used to sell pseudo-idealistic concepts, but it’s different when spoken by the American-Irish architect, who has always stood, and still stands, for humanist architecture.

I felt the responsibility of the modern architect is to create a community for a democratic society.

The Irish director Mark Noonan explores Kevin Roche’s life and work in conventional documentary-film style. Alongside archive footage, he interviews colleagues and companions who, in the style of other documentaries, wax lyrical in adoring tones, thus ruling out any substantial critique of their portrait subject. Nevertheless, we are not really inclined to disagree with them, since the now 95-year-old, still sprightly Roche truly believes in his ideals and comes across as simply very charming. This modest man appears to be quite the opposite of architecture pop star Bjarke Ingels from the eponymous architecture group BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), whose ego was suitably massaged recently in the documentary film “Big Time.”

In a fantastically filmed, contemplative retrospective, Noonan’s film moves from building to building, giving an overview of Roche’s creativity that is not always profound, but is nevertheless broadly based. His architecture is for the community, and human beings are the central foundation of his concepts. Here, for example, we see the Ford Center, an office complex that he designed as a communicative space and equipped with a gigantic indoor garden. And the Oakland Museum of California, with all its overgrowing vegetation, which even today remains a supreme example of the flowing connection between inside and outside.

Outstanding museum buildings 

It is the museum architecture that occupies a particular significance in Roche’s portfolio. In his long career – believe it or not, the man has been in the business for 70 years – he has designed suitable spaces and taken charge of major renovation works for a number of exhibition venues. Together with his longstanding colleague, structural engineer John Dinkeloo, he already developed a masterplan for the renovation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York back in 1967, and has carried out all the expansions and redesigns of the different wings of the museum ever since. Undoubtedly though, one of his most noteworthy museum buildings is the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, the form of which is borrowed from the Star of David, making it a memorial of the Holocaust even from the outside.

Indoor-Garden Ford Center. © Salzgeber & Co. Medien GmbH
Ciudad Grupo Santander © Salzgeber & Co. Medien GmbH

Kevin Roche spent a semester studying under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology, worked for Eero Saarinen, whose legacy he took on after Saarinen’s premature death, and numbers among the greats of the architecture scene. In 1982 he was even awarded the famous Pritzker Prize, known as the “Nobel Prize for Architects,” which more recently has been presented to such luminaries as Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas.

A role model for every architect

In his documentary, Mark Noonan offers us a charming commemoration of the quiet architect Kevin Roche. Undoubtedly his film will fit well into this day and age, since many could take a leaf out of Roche’s book when it comes to his ideas on architecture. After all, it has been a very long time since the notion of community and a democratic society were as under threat as they are today.

Kevin Roche. © Salzgeber & Co. Medien GmbH