Battling conservative local
tastes and easily confused contractors, architect Dan Rockhill takes
matters into his own hands.
from a distance, Barry and Sue Newton's house floats on the Kansas
prairie, the curved roof and broadly corrugated red flanks
suggesting a railcar momentarily at rest before resuming its journey
across the plains. At once stately and utilitarian, the building's
long low volume seems perfectly adapted to its grassy site. The
house was designed by local architect Dan Rockhill, who has made a
career of what might be called "Kansas Modernism," taking
inspiration from the utilitarian structures of the plains for
expressive dwellings that come by their rough surfaces and brawny
materials with unusual honesty. What makes the house so different
for Rockhill is that this time no one is mad at him--not even the
Newtons, who had enough of a sense of humor during the project to
refer to themselves, when leaving messages on his answering machine,
as "the fucking clients."
|Inspired by gas-pumping stations
and industrial distribution centers, this prairie home (above
and below) designed and built by Rockhill and Associates
measures 110 feet long and 24 feet wide. It is situated ten
miles west of Lawrence, Kansas, an otherwise liberal college
town still struggling to accept Modernist
Rockhill and Associates, http://www.rockhillandassociates.com/
|Rockhill constructed steel-frame,
continuous-louver windows to filter the glaring mid-day sun
(above and below).|
Barry Newton is a colleague of
Rockhill's in the architecture department at the University of
Kansas, in Lawrence. That the house doesn't have a sod roof or an
elaborate metal framework hovering over the side yard, or irate
neighbors at the brink of forming a mob, is a testament to the
restraint of all parties involved--and the wisdom of building in the
middle of nowhere. That the house exists at all is, like most of
Rockhill's work, a testament to his talent, tenacity, and unique
approach to design.
Some architects pander to popular tastes.
Others have only a minimal understanding of what it takes to
actually build the places they design. No one will ever accuse
Rockhill of these sins. The rangy 55-year-old former mechanic is
never insulated from the consequences of his inspirations for a
simple reason--he builds what he designs. With a small crew,
Rockhill and Associates does the construction and produces custom
items in its own rural shop, including the elaborate metalwork that
is its trademark. Because off-the-shelf windows lack character, the
firm fabricates its own steel frames. Sometimes the architect will
even do the wiring or dig the septic system.
houses he designs is an essential part of Rockhill's formula for
creating architecture he believes in. It gives him complete control
over what gets made while sparing clients the discouraging risk
premium that most contractors build into their bids whenever
confronted with unorthodox modern design. Working from Rockhill's
own barn, the firm has scant overhead, generates minimal paperwork,
and can handle complications "without the spirit-sapping trail of
change orders and meetings" associated with typical
architect-contractor relations. "It is hard to imagine a way to
create a challenging but affordable building with an emphasis on
materials," Rockhill says, "unless you have the money to overwhelm
the doubt of a contractor or, as we have chosen, do it
The result is a growing body of inspired
architecture that drives some people in this comfortable college
town crazy--including possibly Rockhill himself, who remains
passionately committed to cutting-edge design but sometimes seems
worn down by an uncomprehending community. "It gets to the point,"
he says, "where I'm almost afraid to use my own name to order a
At one Rockhill-designed house, a fistfight broke
out between a neighbor and a member of the construction crew. At
another one--a large concrete volume studded with metal awnings in a
neighborhood of upscale tract homes--someone spray-painted a
warning: "Paint this or I will." On yet another occasion the local
newspaper editorialized against a classically Modern gem that
Rockhill and his students were erecting--for free, aside from
materials--for a low-income handicapped person. A house he built on
speculation took him more than a year to sell at a loss, despite an
affordable price and a strong local real estate market. The place
later graced the cover of a design magazine.
Even on the
prairie Rockhill gets in trouble. His elegant Japanese-inspired
concrete house for a University of Kansas business professor was to
include a garden shed, but to comply with restrictive land covenants
it had to look like a garage. Rockhill produced a luminous little
structure with corrugated fiberglass walls, but a neighbor
complained and the architect was forced to cover them up. To
Rockhill, "the final indignity" was that the same neighbor was
allowed to put up a prefab metal shed, no questions asked.
is it Lawrence or Rockhill? Probably a bit of both. Lawrence is a
charming and eminently livable college town of about 85,000 people
that offers plenty in the way of organic foods and authentic
urbanism but remains far more conservative than such coastal
counterparts as Berkeley or Northampton. "To build in Lawrence,"
Rockhill says, "an increasing portion of your budget has to go
toward cultural conformity in one form or another." Newton, who is
perhaps a more objective observer, says, "When it comes to housing,
Lawrence is an incredibly conservative place--just like most other
Then there is Rockhill, a lean and glamorous figure
who has a weakness for complicated-looking canopies and metal
structures in wood-frame neighborhoods. This is also a man who has
friction with his clients even though he builds many of his houses
for far less than most contractors would charge. "Every client we've
had, we ended up fighting with," he acknowledges. "One of the few
exceptions would be the Newtons."
Rockhill gets in trouble
partly because of his insistence on adventurous design for infill
lots in established Lawrence neighborhoods. Consider the austere
home he designed and built for a pair of artists--the house that
inspired the "paint me" graffiti. A large bluff concrete rectangle
with a V-shaped roof and a lot of exposed hardware, the
5,000-square-foot home is wedged into a narrow lot amid some
undistinguished conventional homes. It is anything but unobtrusive.
"That thing drew just a tremendous outcry from the community,"
recalls Ann Gardner, editorial-page editor of the Lawrence
Journal-World. "It wasn't just us. We got tons of letters to the
editor about what an eyesore it was."
|Industrial-style details include
exposed iron truss-work in the main living areas (visible in
the section drawing above and axonometric below), a corrugated
steel roof, and a sand-blasted glass partition wall
unrepentant, complaining that no one seems to raise a fuss about the
aesthetics of the big-box retailers on the edge of town or the
astonishingly banal town houses that could as easily be in suburban
Boston or Seattle. "We're good at galvanizing neighborhood
associations," he says. "If you don't have an association already,
you will when we show up."
The difficulty may be that while
Rockhill is obsessed with the muscular vernacular of utilitarian
structures on the Kansas plains, the contemporary idiom in Lawrence,
like most other places, is the generic tract home. Even before
"developer pastiche" swept aside earlier indigenous styles, the
prevailing look in town was more citified farmhouse than industrial
shed. At the Eldridge Hotel, a classic old brick pile in the heart
of the city, the aesthetic runs to hideous wallpaper and scary
baroque chairs. Is there any historical reason to privilege lovingly
cast concrete and handmade metal window frames?
doing is using the language of the materials of the region,"
Rockhill insists as we drive around in his pickup truck. "I don't
think people who live in houses described as 'colonial' or 'French
Provincial' have a lot of reason to throw stones." Over dinner
Rockhill and his low-key associate David Sain, whom he credits
frequently, talk about why it was that in the Fifties people
embraced new design. They had faith in the future, Sain suggests. I
offer the theory that the acceptance of advanced design is in
inverse proportion to the rate of social change. Technology,
immigration, labor-force mobility, the changing role of women, the
splintering family, and other developments have resulted in enormous
social flux, with nostalgia correspondingly manifest in people's
home design preferences--even to the extent that the Fifties
themselves are in. During our travels around Lawrence, Rockhill and
I observe that there are a lot more people who can afford the kind
of faux château that we pass here and there on the
When I ask if he'd ever consider doing a traditional
house for a paying customer, Rockhill says, "I just couldn't do it."
On the contrary, as a professor he runs a program called Studio 804 that builds
extraordinary little contemporary houses for a local nonprofit
organization on behalf of disadvantaged citizens. In his private
practice, Rockhill is so determined to experiment that he designs
and builds homes for reasonably affluent clients at astonishingly
low prices. The graffiti house, for example, was executed for about
$50 a square foot, including a munificent design fee of $2,500. The
business professor's house was done for about $95 a square
foot--including site work and plaster walls instead of Sheetrock.
"We want to do architecture," Rockhill says. "But we want to stop
giving it away."
Maybe Freud was right about fees being
therapeutic because Rockhill charged the Newtons a more reasonable
$300,000 and everyone seems to have gotten along. It probably helped
that as an architect Newton understands that house projects generate
"a lot of passion and a preposterous amount of money at risk."
Newton hired Rockhill instead of designing his own home because, he
says, he didn't trust any builders in the area to undertake the job.
Newton says that he laid out the rooms and sited the house but
credits Rockhill with the design.
The Newton house, as
Rockhill writes in a forthcoming book about his work, "is a simple
form inspired by common industrial buildings that abound in the
landscape as pumping stations and distribution centers for liquid
and natural gas and oil." The corrugated-steel roof was rolled by a
grain bin manufacturing company and hovers above the house on a
series of exposed custom truss works. Continuous louvers--perforated
concrete soffit panels--help provide shade from the blazing summer
sun and emphasize the horizontality of the design, as do the broad
corrugations of the Danish cement fiberboard panels whose red is
drawn from the color of the silos--made of reddish "silo
block"--commonly found in rural Kansas. The Newton interior features
Rockhill's familiar industrial aesthetic, including polished
concrete floors, a lot of gleaming metal, and sandblasted glass
partitions and countertops.
"I think that's an incredible
house--it's really a machine," says New York architect Walter
Chatham, whose work shares a similar aesthetic. "It looks like it
belongs on some high-tech French rail siding." Chatham says it
reminds him of the work of Glenn Murcutt, the Australian architect
who happened to be in Lawrence--with Rockhill--when his Pritzker
Prize was announced. Newton and Rockhill admire Murcutt, but for
Newton the paintings of Mark Rothko were also an inspiration. After
a storm, Newton says, you get the sun coming out of the west,
illuminating the prairie beneath the clouds, "so the ground is paler
than the sky." Best of all, clients and architect are still
speaking. "Dan is demanding and difficult," Newton says. "That's why
I wanted him to build the house."