Half biopic, half career showcase, Mark Noonan’s new film, Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect, examines the life and work of its titular Pritzker Prize-winning architect.
We are first presented with something of an abstract: beautifully photographed scenes of Roche’s work accompanied by talking heads who have nothing but good things to say about the architect and his projects. The film tells of an immense talent, and we are eager to learn more about Roche’s work and process.
Any film that focuses on mastery will struggle in illustrating this to a cinema-goer. The Quiet Architect does an admirable job of showing the broad strokes of Roche’s creative process. He is a pioneer in his use of drawings and scale models to sell an idea.
One memorable sequence shows an overhead projector moving through slides showing preliminary design sketches for a building. These sketches begin to layer on top of one another becoming blocks of primary colour. The effect is not unlike cel-animation. The slideshow then transitions to a series of photographs showing a scale model of the same building, now 3D and solid.
The interviewees explain that Roche’s demonstrative approach was something that had not been seen before. It was pivotal in pushing through some of his more outlandish proposals for buildings, and, as we see on film, it makes for good spectacle too.
There’s something inherently cinematic about these sequences. They have the feeling of time-lapse photography and elicit something resembling an emotional response in the viewer. It is as if we’ve seen the building made real right in front of our eyes.
But the portrait that Noonan paints of Roche feels less complete than the architectural drafts we see throughout the film. Even after spending an extended period of time with him and those who greatly admire him, I still felt as though my view of Roche was sketchy.
The film does give a great insight into Roche’s philosophical approach to work, but a view of his own interiority is elusive.
Looking back on Roche’s early life we learn that his first project was a piggery built on his father’s farm. He designed the piggery following extensive research into the needs of both the pigs and the farmers.
Roche talks about spending a lot of time with the pigs, observing them and noting what they required to live a happy life. This approach continued throughout his career.
When Roche constructs corporate buildings and offices we see a focus on the workers, their needs and desires for a workplace. The human-facing philosophy behind projects like the Ford Foundation and the Oakland Museum finds its origin on a pig farm in rural Ireland.
The push and pull of Noonan’s film is that, in many respects, The Quiet Architect is a film with a specific and primed audience in mind. Noonan himself is a former student of architecture.
A greater focus on Roche as a person would have gone some way to remedy this sense of something half-finished. There are glimpses of romance and of Roche’s inner world but they’re quickly glossed over in favour of the subject’s next architectural achievement.
For viewers without a subscription to Architectural Digest there is plenty of eye candy, but not much in the way of exposition.
A lady two seats over from me was audibly bowled over by every shot of Roche’s work. “Oh wow.” “Fabulous.” “Just incredible.” I’m inclined to agree with her sentiment albeit more quietly and not during the film.
These buildings are remarkable. Kudos in this regard to cinematographer Kate McCullough, who photographs the exteriors and interiors beautifully.
The Quiet Architect does not quite come together as a portrait and works better as an overview of Roche’s body of work, rather than of Kevin Roche, the person. Still, Roche’s architectural accomplishments illuminate aspects of his character that the talking heads cannot.
Roche is in his mid-nineties and still clocks in office hours; at one point he interrupts the filming to take off for work. There is then, not much Noonan can do to wring more out of his subject, a man who more than anything lives to work and finds great meaning in that.
The film ends with an exploration of Dublin’s Convention Centre, a building that highlights Roche’s fresh and intriguing approach to design and a consideration for the surrounding environment that is singular.
As the credits rolled on The Quiet Architect I felt as though I only had half the story, though, on reflection, I don’t know why I expected the quiet architect to talk me through his process when the buildings speak it loud and clear.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 11 October at 11:35am. An earlier version named the director as Michael Noonan, not Mark Noonan. Apologies for the error. The former finance minister did not direct this film.]