The night before Kevin Roche’s job interview with Eero Saarinen ARC ’34, the renowned architect, Roche stayed up all hours of the night. He was partying at the Stork Club in New York City with his cousin, an actress who had an expense account with MGM, his story goes. The next morning, at the interview, he fell asleep in his chair. But Saarinen gave him the job anyway, which led to a brilliant career, which led to a talk Friday night at the School of Architecture.
In the discussion with Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, Roche recounted his experiences meeting and working with Saarinen and developing his own monumental style — indeed, the talk was part of a symposium called “Thinking Big.” Roche is also the subject of a retrospective exhibition in the Yale School of Architecture Gallery.
Roche told the packed auditorium of roughly 200 in Hastings Hall that Saarinen had an extraordinary presence, “rather like the presence of God,” he said, to laughter from the audience.
But after working with Saarinen for several months, Roche said, he thought he understood the master architect’s main design philosophies.
“How many times can you hear ‘less is more?’” he asked.
Roche worked closely with his mentor until Saarinen’s death in 1961. When he received the tragic news, Roche said, he was in a meeting in New York with a number of Vice Presidents of CBS, but he still took the call, then went back and finished the meeting. “That’s what Eero would have done,” Roche said.
Hawthorne spoke of the sense of community created by Roche’s large-scale blueprints, such as in the Oakland Museum of California, which incorporates terraces, trees and open spaces, and the courtyard of Morse College. Hawthorne lived in Morse when he was a student at Yale and said he experienced the plan’s strengths firsthand.
When Roche was commissioned to design behemoth corporate headquarters, such as the John Deere Headquarters in Moline, Illinois, he said he wanted to extend that sense of community to large companies.
“I wanted to relieve the boredom of working in an office and restore the amenities,” Roche said. “It should be similar to a village.”
In addition to pioneering buildings that matched the new scale of the “automobile age,” Roche was among the first in his field to use technology such as the slide projector, Hawthorne said. In this way, he added, the architect was also an artist.
“The images themselves were dramatic visually,” Hawthorne said. “The process of preparing them was painterly and sometimes included drawing over the photographs.”
As explanation for his painstaking work on these presentations, Roche said that communication is one of the most important skills that young architects must learn, particularly today, when clients expect many visual aids with the rise of digital media and computers.
Roche had originally been slated to talk with the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of The New Yorker Paul Goldberger ’72, but the Dean of the School of Architecture Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 said that Goldberger was “deeply embarrassed that he was unable to honor his commitment.”
“But we’re very lucky that Hawthorne could step in at what was almost the 11th hour,” Stern said.
The discussion was part of a greater program of lectures that also included speakers from Columbia University, Princeton University, and Brown University, among others.
Corrections: February 23, 2011
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the architect of the Deere & Co. World Headquarters. The company lists Eero Saarinen as the architect of record, while Roche is credited with carrying out the building’s plans.