One Man’s Vernacular

Battling conservative local tastes and easily confused contractors, architect Dan Rockhill takes matters into his own hands.

Seen 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.”

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.

Building the 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 yourself.”

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 pizza.”

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.

So 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 places.”

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.”

Rockhill is 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?

“What we’re 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 prairie.

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.”

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