Exhibit reviews work of heralded Modernist Kevin Roche

Kevin Roche is not an alumnus of the Yale School of Architecture, but a new exhibition of his work at the school celebrates him like a native hero.

The architect behind iconic New Haven structures such as the Knights of Columbus world headquarters will be honored with a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Yale School of Architecture, titled “Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment.” During his half century-long career, the Hamden-based architect has helped shape the landscape of the Elm City and has been honored with the Pritzker Prize, which is widely considered to be the architectural equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The new show, which opened yesterday in the school’s exhibition gallery, will explore his career from the 1960s to the present.

“New Haven is a case study of how Roche understands buildings’ relationships to the city,” said Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen ARC ’94, the exhibition’s curator. “The highway scale was emerging, the city was changing and Roche’s architecture was responding to that new context and space.”

Alongside mid-century Modernists Robert Venturi and James Stirling, Roche is widely recognized as one of the leading architects of his time. He is known for the large scale of his designs and the detailed way he contextualizes them within surrounding landscapes. Where previous architects, like Roche’s mentor Eero Saarinen ARC ’34, saw architecture as the construction of beautiful objects independent of their surroundings, Roche saw his buildings as part of a larger environment, Pelkonen said.

The school’s Director of Exhibitions Dean Sakamoto said Roche’s influence on the city remains strong.

“The world headquarters of the Knights of Columbus is one of the first architectural landmarks you see when you enter New Haven from the interstate or from the train,” Sakamoto said. “It gives you orientation. In my mind, it’s an architectural rival to East Rock.”

As a principal of the firm Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, Roche pioneered new ways of communicating with clients. In the 1960s, long before the advent of computer-aided design or PowerPoint presentations, the architect used detailed diagrams, charts and slideshows to illustrate his ideas and frame timelines.

Inside the exhibition, silver panels highlight themes chosen by Pelkonen to span Roche’s career: “Big,” “Context and Community” and “Greenhouse and Garden,” to name a few.

The panels are made of mirrored mylar, a medium that “dematerializes the space” and helps people engage with the architecture, Sakamoto said.

“This way, the viewer focuses on the strong shapes and forms of the structures,” he added.

Roche saw public spaces, such as gardens and parks, as integral to architecture, said Pelkonen. His Ford Foundation Building in Manhattan included a 12-story atrium filled with plants. Roche incorporated natural elements, such as ivy and trees, in his additions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and his redesign of the Central Park Zoo.

“He was really the first to see architecture and nature as one,” said Pelkonen.

In his preface to the show’s guide, School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 calls Roche Saarinen’s “right-hand man.” On Monday, Roche toured the exhibition for the first time.

The exhibition will be on display until May 6, and the School of Architecture will hold a symposium on Roche’s signature approach to architecture and contextual landscapes from Feb. 17-19.

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