Kevin Roche on How He Got His Start—Nodding Off in an Interview With Eero Saarinen
You came to the United States from Ireland in 1948, when you were 26, choosing to study with Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology after also being accepted at both Yale and Harvard. You only stayed in Illinois for a year. Why?
I ran out of money and couldn’t continue paying for school. That’s the only reason. Mies didn’t know I’d left—he had absolutely no interest.
Tell me about your first job.
I decided to come to New York because I wanted to work on the United Nations headquarters. I got a bus, and I went right to the Harrison and Abramovitz office, and I asked for a job. They gave me a job as a file clerk, and I took it.After several months, they moved me to a drafting table. To this day every time I drive by that building, I think, "Wow." I’m always surprised it’s still there, because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. The guy beside me was a former mason and so he had a better idea of what to do and how to put it together. But then I went back to Ireland to see my mother and I forgot to tell them I was going. So, I was fired when I came back, and I didn’t blame them, because I was hopeless.Eventually somebody I knew told me that Eero Saarinen was in town and looking for people, but I wasn’t interested because I didn’t like any of his father, Eliel Saarinen’s, work. But then I figured, "What the hell? It’s a job." I went to his hotel at eight in the morning and he was just getting up, and I just sat on the middle of the bed. I had been up all night with my cousin. We’d been drinking for a week straight. I sat on the bed and Eero’s speech was very slow and very relaxed. I fell asleep. Fortunately, I woke up with a start as he was putting on his coat and walking out the door, "Well," he said, "Come out to Michigan." So I borrowed the money and got on an overnight train. I got off, and carrying my backpack, I walked the couple of miles to the office. It was nine the next morning, and I started working.
What was Eero Saarinen like?
He was an incredible person, truly extraordinary. He was a real architect in the sense that he cared about people’s involvement. He cared about why we do this, how our work relates to the rest of the community. He wasn’t obsessed with the idea of modern architecture, per se. He was obsessed with the idea of architecture that fulfilled a purpose.
I understand that you agreed about many things, but not everything, and he relied upon your candor.
We got to know each other very well. That made a very, very good working relationship. He was very religious, you know? One night we stayed up until four in the morning talking about God. We did that many times. And yes. We agreed philosophically. I think it’s the responsibility of architecture to support and create communities. And if architects thought of it that way, which they don’t, but if they did, it would be quite a different world.
You started at a low rung in his office but you quickly rose to a senior design position and became one of his closest collaborators. How did that happen?
Eero began to be interested in me because we used to talk about things that he understood. You see, he’d grown up in Finland. He understood poverty. We got to be friendly, and eventually I would travel with him everywhere. We just talked about everything. We’d go talk to a client and we’d analyze the meeting afterward and talk about the problem. I just became somebody to talk to for him. I think he liked the idea of arguing about things.
You must have learned very quickly.
It was a great education for me. I began to understand what it was all about, and it wasn’t Mies and it wasn’t Corbu, and it wasn’t any of those people. Architecture had another purpose, and Eero was beginning to thrive. There were a lot of projects. I didn’t always like what I was working on, but I did work on the early stages of the David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink. Eero wanted to have a model with an arch that ran the length of the building, and I just couldn’t agree with that. So I made several other proposals with an arch that would span across the width of the building, but he just threw them out."
Your firm, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, has completed dozens of large corporate headquarters as well as civic structures like museums and academic institutions. How did the values you shared with Saarinen manifest themselves during those projects?
Community is absolutely essential to a mature life. Think of your relationship to all the life around you, and you think about architecture differently.
Eero Saarinen died rather unexpectedly of a brain tumor in 1961. Where were you when you found out?
I was in a meeting in New York with the people at CBS, and we were trying to work out how many elevators we needed for the building. I got a call, got up and left the room, and learned that Eero had just died. I said, "What the hell do I do now?" But I did exactly what I thought he would do. I went back and finished the meeting without saying anything about it, and we determined the number of elevators. Then at the end of the meeting, I told them. Then they all started running for a phone.
And that’s what he would have wanted you to do?
Yes. Finish the business.
Illustration by Sam Kerr