Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment
Museum of the City of New York
September 27 through February 5
Reviewed by Hugh Hardy
Few architects have sustained the creative energy required to successfully practice architecture for sixty years while so completely exploring a wide range of ideas about the purpose, use, construction and appearance of their projects. Despite examples of his work all around the United States and overseas, it is Roche’s quest for appropriate solutions to urban sites in New York that this insightful exhibition explores. Thought of as a confirmed modernist because of his work with Saarinen, Roche has nonetheless responded to New York with some astonishing forays into the use of historic styles and traditional forms, using a questioning attitude that has led to surprisingly eclectic ideas about urban planning and architecture.
Roche is an architect whose importance lies not in his pursuit of an individual style but rather his investigation into the larger forces shaping the profession in our city. His early consideration of the new, large scale of buildings in New York made him a pioneer in fitting these works into the character of New York. The relationship of these behemoths to the natural environment, and the ability to find new ways to relate them to existing neighbors all show a major interest in the urban context. Such thinking is at the scale of the city and not limited to the dimensions of individual sites. Roche has successfully pursued the idea that buildings need not be thought of as isolated from the surrounding city by their walls.
Roche is an architect whose importance lies not in his pursuit of an individual style but rather his investigation into the larger forces shaping the profession in our city.
This exhibition, appropriately titled, “Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment”, offers experiments in urban planning relevant to a changing profession. Roche’s first example of such thinking was the Ford Foundation building with John Dinkeloo over forty years ago. It suggested architecture could be joined with nature and the surrounding city in ways that are both more porous and more responsive to nature than those offered by traditional divisions between outside and inside.
Urban planning conceived for the marketplace must find the highest possible use for every square foot of space. Such thinking often leads to planning diagrams that show buildings in black to represent solids and open space in white to represent voids. But what do these building blocks define when, as at the Ford Foundation, the building is no longer a solid object? What happens when the solidity of traditional masonry buildings becomes a variagated enclosure where transparency merges with urban vistas and street views of executives on upper floor? Here, inside is engaged with outside to include floor to ceiling views of Forty Second Street and the East River for its occupants. Clearly not conceived with marketplace values, the Ford Foundation explores the relationship between outside and inside, putting the two together in a composition that benefits everyone on either side of its enclosure.
The Ford Foundation… suggested architecture could be joined with nature and the surrounding city in ways that are both more porous and more responsive to nature than those offered by traditional divisions between outside and inside.
It was just after completion of the Ford Foundation in 1969 that Roche proposed a startling addition to Lower Manhattan for the Federal Reserve Bank: a high rise tower supported on free standing columns, one hundred and fifty feet tall, that would offer open space in densely compacted downtown. Its unconventional massing of multiple floors set high in the air would leave the ground plane free to provide openings for light and air so sorely needed in Lower Manhattan. This adventuresome idea was particularly unusual for a federal agency.
The following year, the existing United Nations Plaza hotel and office building were but the first phase of a giant project intended to change the urban scale of Manhattan’s East Side. This office building complex for the U.N.’s expansion would also give rise to a huge, multistory public space. Had the project been completed for the U.N., it would have redefined the entire neighborhood, transforming this partially low-rise residential enclave into a teeming office center whose public hall could rival those spawned by 19th century railroads. Instead, what was built includes two, tall angular glass high-rise buildings, one an office building the other a stylish hotel. Not until Related’s current project for the Hudson Yards on the West Side has Manhattan seen similar ambition.
[The UN] would have redefined the entire neighborhood, transforming this partially low-rise residential enclave into a teeming office center whose public hall could rival those spawned by 19th century railroads… Not until Related’s current project for the Hudson Yards has Manhattan seen similar ambition.
By contrast, Roche’s personable transformation of Central Park Zoo’s individual brick and stone buildings took to heart their pastoral location in Central Park. It made more of the natural setting, incorporating a series of masonry and wood pergola structures that extend the park’s natural landscape into public space. These open structures join together Robert Moses’s individual masonry buildings, making them into low rise, geometric abstractions of traditional garden structures. The results are clearly more publicly welcoming and intimate than the original.
When considering the full range of Roche’s work outside the city, it clearly represents as large a range of project types as any practicing architect, but his forty-five year involvement with the Metropolitan Museum represents a singular example of client fidelity. That assignment illuminates investigation into an appropriate environment for art in a complex of dissimilar buildings begun in 1870 and added on to by several generations. In the process Roche has confronted all manner of juxtapositions between art and architecture, some new, some old, and it is instructive to see how the museum now knowingly responds to display of its wide range of art works. Out of all these transformations, his great pyramidal flights of steps at the Fifth Avenue front door have created one of the great public spaces in New York.
Uninterested in advancing the sound bite culture and free of academic jargon, Roche’s commentary is simple and direct, reflecting a belief in the power of basic thinking. In addition to past accomplishment, here is the work of a thoughtful architect revealing an exploration of new opportunities for making architecture that appropriately responds to the public realm.
Rather than visiting this exhibition as a place to discover the latest examples of form-giving, look carefully at what each project intends to accomplish and see how it resonates with what you know of the future New York. I am certain these investigations can enable us to better find a more principled way through the conflicting issues of contemporary architecture.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates LLC