But when Roche began working under his own name in 1966, his output didn’t have the sculptural exuberance or high-minded utopian imagination of Saarinen. Responding to the robust economy and the emergence of giant American corporations, with their seemingly bottomless appetite for new office space, Roche responded with technocratic fervor, rewarding his clients with giant, geometrical enactments of their organizational structure. He made architecture look like a flow chart.
It’s hard to be objective about an architect when you have long hated even one of his buildings. It’s also hard being objective about the architecture of the 1960s and ’70s, which seems like a very bleak period, the heyday of brutalism and too many vitiated efforts to purify or dress up the dying modernist box. There has been a push recently to reassess the architects of this period, including meticulous renovations that have forced reappraisal of some buildings once thought irredeemably hideous. And, of course, taste changes, so perhaps the ’60s and ’70s will seem as fashionable in a few years as mid-century modern is now.
But Roche and Dinkeloo (as KRJDA) built some real stinkers, and they were often working on such a scale that when a building failed, it failed big, bad and awful. To be fair to this exhibit and to Roche (who is still active in his 90s), it’s worth putting in one column all the good things about his oeuvre.
The building museum exhibit, a smaller version of a show organized by the Yale School of Architecture, stresses the architect’s environmental sensibility, arguing that he was ahead of his time in thinking about building systems and how buildings relate to the world around them. One of Roche’s best buildings, the 1963-68 Ford Foundation Building in New York, arrayed offices around a huge internal garden, one of the early examples of the giant terrariums that have become standard in hotel lobbies and corporate space.
Clients loved him, and in many cases, remained faithful to his firm over decades. Among Roche’s institutional patrons is New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a landlocked, land-hungry beast that he has been helping expand and modernize since 1967, most recently with a newly designed American Wing, which opened this year.