Kevin Roche: The Favorite Architect of Corporate America


Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen


Associate Professor, Yale School of Architecture


Newsletter, corporate modernism
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Kevin Roche’s path toward becoming one of corporate America’s favorite architects was paved in the 1950s, when, while working at Eero Saarinen and Associates, he helped design the first, and many would argue, the most groundbreaking corporate headquarters and research facilities for clients such as CBS, General Motors, IBM, John Deere and Company, and Bell Laboratories.  These companies represented traditional manufacturing and emerging information technologies while prizing architecture as a symbol for power and prestige.


The office of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJD) was established in 1965, after Roche and John Dinkeloo helped bring the work of Eero Saarinen and Associates into completion after the principal’s untimely death in 1961. Roche, in charge of the design arm of the new office, got his own corporate clients from the fast-growing chemical, pharmaceutical, financial, and insurance sectors, which had different priorities regarding architecture’s role. Instead of symbolic presence, the new generation of companies needed a building type that reflected the emerging character of business no longer intimately linked to the production of tangible goods. Instead of facilitating manufacturing and research, this new generation of companies needed buildings that accommodated the growing white-collar workforce in administration. Instead of a symbolic asset, architecture became viewed as an integral part of a broader business model helping manage human resources and workflows.

The change in business practice in the 1960s and 1970s led also to a new relationship between building and sites. While Saarinen’s corporate work was often located to elaborately landscaped “estates” that fostered roots to their particular locales, most of KRJD’s corporate projects had already spread to multiple locations. The location selection of headquarters sites was often based on issues such as availability of workforce, low taxation, and transportation. At times, the external played no role, as was the case with the Union Carbide Corporation World Headquarters building (1976-82), located strategically on Interstate 84 on suburban Connecticut, a state that was particularly attractive to white collar workers, because it did not tax income until 1990.


This change in how corporations chose to locate themselves was paralleled by a shift to complicated models of systems analysis by which companies started to manage growth and their increasing global research. Roche became a master at navigating this new climate that required understanding of how corporations worked and evolved. New strategies led subsequently to new design priorities, marked by the emphasis on external image to internal organization and atmosphere of the building.

The College Life Insurance Company Headquarters in Indianapolis (1967-71) [Image: College Life Insurance Co.] was the first example of the new corporate headquarters type. Located, like many of KRJD’s corporate buildings, along an interstate highway, it makes no attempt for contextual presence. The master plan simply placed four equal diamond-shaped blocks on the site, one dedicated to headquarters functions, and three to parking. The block dedicated to housing people was conceived as a matrix of nine pyramid-shaped buildings, each with an equal-size square footprint connected to others by bridges and tunnels. Three of these, glad with mirrored glass wall eventually got built. Recalling forms created by the great eighteenth-century visionary architect Étienne-Louis Boullée they seem to announce that periods of dramatic change require big and bold architecture.


The four-story, 2.2-million-square-foot Union Carbide Corporation World Headquarters building (1976-82), tucked in a wooded site in Danbury, Connecticution was perhaps the most extreme case of this new paradigm in which architecture was conceived no longer as a celebration of corporate image but simply as a facilitator of conducting business. [Image: Union Carbide HQ. Models depicting different office interiors] In fact, the building is never experienced from without, since the parking forms the building’s spine. An employer simply drives into the building and finds a parking spot next to his or her office without ever having to wither weather, even.


KRJD’s design process began with a series of interviews that led to a compilation of data about the working organization and personal tastes of the workforce. The research phase included writing a computer program to coordinate the office decors based on individual preferences. The spatial planning aimed at increasing worker efficiency, making architecture an inseparable part of conducting business.


Adapted from Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, ed. Kevin Roche: Architecture as an Environment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011)


About the Author


Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen is an Associate Professor at Yale University’s School of Architecture, Her scholarly work focuses on twentieth-century European and American architecture with interest in the genesis and meaning of architectural form within various national and historical contexts. Ms. Pelkonen is the author of Achtung Architektur! Image and Phantasm in Contemporary Austrian Architecture (MIT Press, 1996) and Alvar Aalto: Architecture, Modernity and Geopolitics (Yale University Press, 2009); a coeditor of Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (Yale, 2006) and Architecture + Art: New Visions, New Strategies (Aalto Academy, 2007); and editor of Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment (Yale, 2011). Her articles have appeared in various publications, including Daidalos, Log, and Perspecta. Prior to coming to Yale, Ms. Pelkonen worked in a number of European firms, most notably with Reima and Raili Pietilä, Architects, in Helsinki, Finland, and Volker Giencke, Architects, in Graz, Austria. She is currently a design associate with Turner Brooks Architects, where she has collaborated on such projects as the Gilder Boathouse for Yale and the Pelkonen/Brooks residence. She received an M.Arch. from the Tampere University of Technology, Finland, an M.E.D. from Yale University, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University.