Good Form

W esley Kavanagh flipped a switch and illuminated a small city. It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing, or where in the world this was. It had portions of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Jewish Heritage, in New York; the Convention Centre Dublin, in Ireland; and the headquarters of several large international companies, among others.

The keepers of this mashed-up model metropolis are the architects at Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, a firm nestled on the northwest flank of East Rock Park, just across the Hamden line. A few stones’ throws away from the “Model City,” as the architects of the urban renewal programs of the 1960s once called New Haven, this room—this city of models—is the staging area for the firm’s many projects. Outfitted with theatrical lighting, a two-story scaffold (used for particularly large models), a screen on which clouds can be projected and even a sound system for added effect, the metropolis feels like the set of an early Japanese monster movie. I half-expected to find a man in a Godzilla suit taking a cigarette break.

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According to Kavanagh, one reason KRJDA is so big on small-scale mockups is the model-making habits of its famed grandfather, architect Eero Saarinen. Today, Saarinen is considered one of the preeminent masters of 20th-century American architecture, though he never saw the completion of some of his most iconic projects, like St. Louis’s Gateway Arch. He died in 1961, during a surgical operation on his brain, and, virtually overnight, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo—at the time, the senior architects in Saarinen’s fold—took the reins.

As Eero Saarinen and Associates transitioned to KRJDA, Roche and Dinkeloo oversaw the completion of Saarinen’s final designs, including the Gateway Arch; CBS Headquarters in New York; Dulles International Airport near Washington, DC; the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex in New Jersey; the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport; and Yale’s Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges, each without a single right angle on their exterior wall schemes.

With Roche the chief designer and Dinkeloo the engineering specialist, the firm has wracked up an impressive catalogue of projects in its 55 years, including many in New York. It’s designed multiple additions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—expanding it to three times its initial size; the Central Park Zoo; and has contributed several elements to New York City’s skyline.

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A large portion of KRJDA’s portfolio consists of corporate headquarters for a variety of international heavyweights, like Santander, IBM, John Deere and Merck & Co. Roche says he interviews hundreds of people in a given company and then strives to tailor the design to the tastes, needs and climate of the HQ. Some have artificial ponds or golf courses or running tracks. The Bouygues World Headquarters, designed by KRJDA, is a grandiose, Versailles-like complex outside of Paris with a long esplanade, large symmetric pools, pillars and copies of Coustou’s Chevaux de Marly. (The originals whinny outside the Louvre.) For Borland International, the firm created a large pagoda-like complex in Scotts Valley, California. Sympathetic to the regional architecture, it added a curveball: a stone garden, poking up out of a pond, meant in part to satisfy the company founder’s fascination with Stonehenge.

Besides such far-flung projects, the firm has built some notable works here at home, including the New Haven Coliseum. KRJDA was particularly active in New Haven during the “Model City” era under mayor Richard Lee. Roche and Lee met by chance on a plane, when, upon hearing Roche’s Irish brogue, Lee struck up a conversation. Lee first commissioned KRJDA to design Richard C. Lee High School (now the Yale Nursing School). Later, the mayor picked KRJDA to design the New Haven Coliseum, and while that landmark has since been razed, the Knights of Columbus building, also a product of KRJDA, still stands tall, overlooking the lot where the Coliseum once stood.

Lee’s era of urban renewal came and went, and so did the era of John Dinkeloo, who passed away in 1981. He was replaced by two other principals, James P. Owens, Jr. and Philip Kinsella, both of whom have since retired, replaced in turn by current principals Kavanagh, Steuart Gray and Christiaan Dinkeloo, John’s son.

Through all these comings and goings, Roche, now 94, has remained. Not only is he still working, but he has a hand in every single project the firm takes on. Though Roche has designed some goliath modernist structures, he maintains that his goal is not to design “crazy buildings,” but rather to serve the communities they’re built for.

“The ego is very prevalent in architecture,” Roche says. “We have to remember that all the great buildings in the past are the product of one kind of a dictator or another. Whether they’re Egyptian, Roman or religious, they all manifest [a similar desire]: ‘I want this big thing to establish my identity,’ and then the architect does that. But then in a democracy, the architect tries to take that role.”

At his age, Roche seems to have shrugged off any notions of dictatorial egotism, if he ever truly had them. Rather than wishing longevity upon his name, he wishes it upon his buildings, hoping they continue to prove useful long into the future.

Of “all the great buildings around,” Roche says, “nobody knows who the hell designed them, or cares. Nor should they.”

Photo Key

1. KRDJA’s current principals (from left): Wesley Kavanagh, Christiaan Dinkeloo, Steuart Gray and Kevin Roche.
2. Eero Saarinen with models of Yale’s Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges.
3. Knights of Columbus building next to the New Haven Coliseum.
4. Bouygues World Headquarters.
5. Convention Centre Dublin.
6. Former headquarters of Borland International.
7. Computer chip-like model of the IBM Hudson Hills Research Laboratory (unbuilt).
8. Model of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates
20 Davis St, Hamden (map)
Mon-Fri 8:30am-5pm
(203) 777-7251

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 1, 7 and 8 by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 2-6 courtesy of KRDJA.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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