Lost in Space

Jeffrey Inaba on Kevin Roche
Thinking Big: Diagrams, Mediascapes, and Megastructures
Yale School of Architecture Symposium: February 19, 2011

Kevin Roche is primarily known for being the master architect of heroic corporate complexes. From Vincent Scully’s condemnation of Roche’s early work as scale-less “paramilitary dandyism,” to Perspecta’s feature of his work in its “Monster” issue, the question of scale (i.e. big) seems to be the primary point of obsession both for his detractors and his admirers. But if doing large buildings means accepting that after a certain size, architecture acquires the properties of bigness, where size alone is a determinant that requires the architect to design by a distinct set of criteria particular to the large scale, Kevin Roche may not be an architect of bigness as his work is important to appreciate for other reasons.

When Koolhaas’ wrote the Bigness essay in 1994, few could have imagined the developments in design technology that are now allowing architects to take control of the design, fabrication and cost estimating process and to evaluate the effects of changes to the design at every point in the process of construction. Bigness assumes that the architect foregoes the idea of architectural composition in order for architecture to be more involved with and channel the forces of contemporary urbanization; that is, the architect accepts that at a large scale it is impossible to animate in a sustained way the form of a building that is say, in the 1-2 million square feet range; and that from a strategic point of view it is better to not exhaust oneself by maintaining control at every scale in order to free up energy to find ways for architecture to have a maximum impact on a social or urban level.

The simplicity of Roche’s architectural forms doesn’t represent a relinquishing of control, but rather this clarity is an attempt to maintain control. For Roche, designing large-scale buildings has always been about this struggle to spend as much energy as possible in order to consider all aspects of design, which only now technologies are enabling us to do. As David Gissen has written, Roche has used technologies, like advanced HVAC systems to control huge areas of interior space, where his point is not so much Roche’s embrace of the newest technologies, but the desire to create spaces with a high degree of calibration that respond to the most subtle demands and small-scale variables. Oddly enough, one criticism of the work has been that it can get “eclectic” or “idiosyncratic” because the interior is not consistent from room to room nor with the expression of the facades. His use of highly reflective mirrors and landscape elements in his interiors is often baffling, particularly when paired with the jarring shifts in scale contained within these spaces, from carpeted hallways to vast sun-lit atria. How, then, do we reconcile the conflicting levels of articulation within each project and across his oeuvre?

Perhaps we should be thinking about Roche’s work not in terms bigness, or boldness and simplicity of form but about subtlety, calibration, and refinement in relation to a human subject.

For decades now Kevin Roche has been saying that architecture is about establishing a sense of community, and that architecture is first and foremost a service to society. And if anyone has been in a room with him when he starts talking about this, you know it’s going to be awhile before he stops. One suspects that a lot of people think his invocations about people and use might be a defense mechanism to criticism that his buildings have received about being not in touch with the human scale.

But what if all along they have been about the use of space as well as form?


Images courtesy of KRJDA

1. Union Carbide Headquarters, generic ideal (hypothetical) and actual (inflected due to site constraints)

2. Merck Headquarters, generic ideal (hypothetical) and actual (contains grand entrance space)

(drawings by Amanda Shin and Evelyn Ting)












Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates