It's happened more than once: The architecture practice we'd chosen for Top Firm in our leadership awards program coincidentally entered and won Project of the Year in our design awards competition too. A lucky twofer. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with luck. Dan Rockhill has been on our radar for quite some time now, growing more prominent in our purview each year. For several years in a row, his Studio 804 class at the University of Kansas won notice from our judges for its forays into affordable housing. In the meantime, we noticed Rockhill was also designing and building interesting, edgy houses in his own practice, Rockhill and Associates. So last year we invited him to join the jury of our design awards program. As long as they meet our mandate for geographic and practice diversity, we always invite jurors we'd like to get to know better. Rockhill graciously accepted our invitation and refrained from entering the competition that year, as required.
This year, he returned as an entrant—with a vengeance. His studio class won Project of the Year for two affordable prefab dwellings (tying with another project by Torti Gallas and Partners), and he grabbed his own merit award for Modern Speakeasy, a bold, green-roofed, home-based restaurant.
Rockhill couldn't make it to our design awards banquet in Los Angeles this summer, but he sent as emissary his architecture school's dean, John C. Gaunt, FAIA. At one point during the evening, Dean Gaunt turned to me and said, “You know, Dan is one of the unsung heroes of architecture.” I said, “Yes, I know. And we're planning to do something about that.”
Singing those praises is the best purpose for our leadership awards. We use them to single out architects who are advancing the practice of residential architecture through their exemplary design work, teaching, civic activities, and other agency for change. Rockhill just happens to fit all those bills.
When I called to tell Rockhill we wanted to give him this award, he said, great—as long as we also include David Sain, his associate of 18 years. Apparently, this unsung hero has an unsung hero of his own.
So many stars get lost in the shadows of flashier luminaries. It happens at the macro level when worthy firms are eclipsed by other pushier or trendier practices. And it happens at the micro level when work by a talented associate goes unacknowledged by the partner/owner. You might call these very different kinds of errors and omissions.
I'm delighted Rockhill told me about his associate. I wish all architects were so generous in dispensing credit. Most of the architects we interview barely mention their staffs—although we always ask point-blank if there's anyone else we should include in our firm profiles and project coverage. It's a slippery slope for those of us writing about architecture. We have to rely on information given to us by the architect of record. And if that architect doesn't wish to share the glory, someone else gets shortchanged.
Architecture is still a star system. And when that light from your adoring public is shining on you, it's very difficult to shade your eyes and say, “Thanks so much, and there are some important people who helped me along the way.” But that's what real star quality is all about.
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