I went to see the documentary on Kevin Roche, called The Quiet Architect, at the Irish Film Institute on Friday night, with a panel debate afterwards including the director of the movie, Mark Noonan, Dr. Sandra McConnell, Education Officer for the R.I.A.I. and chaired by Aoife Kelleher, also an extraordinary film director.
I was immediately transported back 44 years. The names of all the architects from seventies’ brutalism and on into eighties’ post-modernism were so familiar to me that I could have been seventeen years old again, sitting on a stool in Doheny & Nesbitts, a bit worse for the wear after three pints of Harp and listening to my mentor, Des McMahon, and his cronies, reeling these names off their tongues in heated debate. Cesar Pelli, Richard Meiers, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn and Kevin Roche were all ground out by Des in his gravelly Derry accent. With the scant disregard for vowels observed in Tyrone, these names were abbreviated and became even more exotic to me ; Chesr Puly and Kavn Rutch.
Six things stood out from the film which were with me already. Free thinkers are not influenced by their experiences per se, but when stumbling upon opinions or maxims which they have already formulated on their own,
these tenets are affirmed and confirmed. I have had the same relationship with Buddhism ; whereas there is nothing in their philosophy with which I disagree,
I don’t want to sit in a room full of other people at 6.00 a.m. chanting inanely. Thus we take and keep the bits which we agree with from our journey.
1. So it is that I wholeheartedly endorse Kevin Roche’s creed, that architecture is not an art form for unilateral expressions of ego, but a social craft with a professional responsibility to the end user, society and the future. Jean Nouvel has articulated it as “ one builds for a people, for civilisation, for mankind “. This moral obligation was instilled in me by Des and I was happy to adopt it as my own. As a consequence, I can identify with Kevin Roche’s practice, yet I don’t like most of his buildings. Therefore Architecture has its own Hippocratic Oath or contract with the client, the end-users and society, central to both the functional design and cultural meaning of buildings. In this way architectural solutions must be intrinsically forged from the inside out. Des used to say to me, if you isolate the problem, you are half way there, because the solution is not far from the problem. It is ironic that Mies Van Der Rohe coined the phrase
“ form follows function “ when his thesis religiously ignored the practical purpose and worshipped modular geometry. I presume he meant that his forms followed the structural function which they did in their structural expression. Ultimately his is a fashion which is truly past its sell-by date. In the wider context, whereas I accepted this policy in my formative years of the seventies, I never liked the product. I acknowledge Kevin Roche’s bona fides and practical success, but my aesthetic heart was Fin De Siecle with Mackintosh, Wagner, Klimt and Frank Lloyd Wright.
2. Much was made in the film of Kevin Roche’s modesty and absence of ego.
Mark Noonan even relayed that Kevin Roche felt the documentary maker’s intrusion was a little bit of a nuisance. However, whereas ego can be a very negative commodity and whereas ego must be tempered in the face of the architect’s primary motivation as outlined above, architects are different to other artists in one respect. Kevin Roche did aver to this when he quipped that being poet was a bit easier than being an architect, in so far as writing is a solitary act, but architects need clients, budgets, consents and builders. Therefore, I cannot accept Kevin Roche as having no ego for two reasons ; (i) artists must engage in some self-promotion at some time and (ii) carrying a clear vision of a strong concept from incept to completion requires a degree of conviction, determination and drive. Thus the painter can paint and the writer can write without a commission from a client, without regard to practical matters, without regulatory permissions and without the need for others to implement the vision, but an architect generally requires a brief from a client, an approved budget, consents to build and a team to build it. Some ego in the form of self-belief is a necessary fuel to sit in a darkened room and make decisions alone, and some ego is required, in the form of leadership, to guide that solution through to completion.
I was convinced that I could see a trace of mischief about the lips of Kevin Roche’s face which belied the impression given that he was without ego. I do accept that where ego tips over into arrogance or where urgency crosses over into impatience, it can be counter-productive, except remembering that the architect is the conductor of an orchestra and must exercise some discipline. Alfred Hitchcock said ‘ let the film fail or succeed, but there can only be one director ‘. Buildings, movies and symphonies cannot be formulated by committee if clarity of vision is to be carried through.
3. Even though I don’t like Kevin Roche’s buildings, one detail did catch my eye, which, in one small way, resonates with my own artistic bent, if you pardon the pun. I did like the way two of the panels and the edge of one inner façade bent inwards against the orthogonal box of the main block of the Jewish Museum in Manhattan.
Whereas the Classicists such as Mies Van Der Rohe pursued unstintingly the thesis of stripped down rigid modular geometry and the Romantics, such as Gaudi, insisted on organic freedom, I believe the tension between the two is an immensely more satisfactory balance. I believe that where there was a temptation for Kevin Roche to centre the full height glass panel in the front façade of the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, it is placed off centre relaxing the matter. I believe that where the rigid bands of horizontal glazing would have been static if continued regularly across the façade, it is playful when pushed inwards. This interaction when the curved line meets the straight line introduces real drama. It is tempting to imagine that this façade had to be restrained in this shape by some pin and if released it would want to spring back.
This was the ultra simple concept behind my own office building in Dun Laoghaire. This composition is a crash between two three dimensional objects ; a curvaceous and sensuous Michael Scott kitchen jug, and a strict orthogonal television monitor box divided like graph paper in horizontal Japanese proportions.
4. There is an irony in the history where Kevin Roche started life as Eero Saarinen’s understudy and side-kick, in so far as Saarinen died suddenly at the age of 51 in 1961 and Kevin Roche promptly and seamlessly, but bravely and competently, took over the practice. Kevin Roche of course subsequently eclipsed Saarinen and succeeded in his own right to become possibly even more renowned. I found it ironic that I was bowled over during the Kevin Roche movie to be reminded how delicate and masterful Eero Saarinen’s work was. Thus the master became the supporting actor in his understudy’s movie, but it is my view that this ought to be reversed again. There is another movie called “ Twenty Feet From Stardom “ which follows the stories of backing singers such as Merri Clayton, Patti Austin, Charlotte Crossley, etc., whose performances outclassed their principals, yet the hit remains attributed to the star. I was reminded of Merri Clayton in particular last Sunday night as I watched Mick Jagger cavort with Sasha Allen on stage in Arnhem, Holland, during the duet of “ Gimme Shelter “ recreating Merri Clayton’s iconic vocal performance which defines the recorded version.
Let me be clear, Kevin Roche was Eero Saarinen’s supporting actor, Eero Saarinen became the supporting actor in The Quiet Architect, but in my view Saarinen ought to prised out from the shadows and back into the spotlight. His buildings were masterful, sculptural and beautifully detailed.
Kevin Roche’s later meddling with geometry struck me as particularly crude, naïve and clumsy. It is so eighties !
Therefore, in the style of the narrative of Mary McGuckian’s excellent film, The Price Of Desire, which endeavours to restore Eileen Gray’s place in history and reverse Le Corbusier’s association with E 1027, I would like to cite Eero Saarinen as my favourite piece of the Roche film. I see him as sitting in a direct line of heritage between Antoni Gaudi and the present day master, Santiago Calatrava.
5. The one issue which really struck home with me, and I am sure was not lost on any other architects practising in Ireland who happen to be in the cinema on Friday the 13th, was Planning.Kevin Roche’s international perspective drawn from a seventy year long career was very telling and the clearest indictment of where this country stands in terms of priorities, progressive culture and can do. Kevin Roche said that the only building he has undertaken in Dublin is the International Conference Centre on Spencer Dock. He said that the project took ten years of excruciating, long-drawn out negotiations and painstaking, unnecessary deliberations. He also said, that half-way through the project he gave up in frustration only to be dragged back after some insistent coercion from Johnny Ronan.
Without saying an awful lot and without being too specific, his body language and facial expression left the viewer in no doubt as to what he thought of Ireland’s carping, begrudging, foot-dragging, failings. When a 94 year old, Pritzker prize winning, pillar of the industry delivers such a withering and scathing indictment of our system, it really behoves the community, Central and Local Government to sit up and take note. Democracy is a very expensive thing. Our Planning System has become preposterously expensive for developers who are being put to ridiculous lengths to propose projects to a system which is too open to abuse and unnecessary repetition. Should significant projects of national importance, economic and cultural value be held to scrutiny by every lay-person in the land for the price of €20. Do we really need to pay professional Planners in Local Authorities to read Planning Applications, visit the site, weigh up third party commentary and assess expertise input, and then pay another equivalent Planner via An Bord Pleanala to do the same thing, while delaying the process by a time factor of 225% Such a delay translates into a significant interest bill for any developer holding a site through a bank loan.
No wonder multi-nationals escaping Brexit are choosing Luxemburg.
6. To conclude on a positive note, I would say that Mark Noonan’s documentary is a most worthy enterprise in another important context. It is better to celebrate our great and good in their lifetime and particularly with their participation, where possible. Notwithstanding Kevin Roche’s alleged reluctance, his contribution to the film makes the entire enterprise so much more relevant.
It reminds me of one of the best art galleries I have ever been to, to wit Fundacio Joan Miro on Montjuic in Barcelona. What is particular about this gallery is that it was designed by a friend of Miro’s, Josep Luis Sert, with Miro’s input and in his lifetime. This meant that the artist could make available notebooks, background information and paraphernalia, prototypes and preliminary sketches. Often the process and the story of the idea are more interesting than the finished article. For this, we should be grateful to Mark Noonan and Kevin Roche for collaborating to produce a document and context for his architectural works.
To summarise :