In the Union Square building that houses the offices of the Rockwell Group, David Rockwell's architecture and design studio that will turn 40 in 2024, there is a soundproof room with a Steinway piano and an old Eames armchair made by Hermann Miller. If David Rockwell (Chicago, 67 years old) is not in his office, it is very likely that he is there rehearsing alone or in the company of his private tutor. Architect and designer, David Rockewll is a prolific creator of spaces and the first architect to win a Tony Award and two Emmy Awards. He is responsible for more than 100 sets for Broadway (Tony Award for She Loves Me in 2016), stages such as the 93rd edition of the Oscars, more than 500 restaurants (starting with Sushi Zen and continuing with New York classics such as New Union Square Cafe, the Italian Carlotto, the luminous Zaytinya – run by his friend José Andrés, impeccable homage to the blues of Greece and Gio Ponti – or the impressive Sake No Hana, pure Japanese refinement), 125 hotels (the New Edition, the future W of Union Square that will open its doors next January or the Raffles in Boston), theaters such as the Hayes on Broadway or the Anthem in Washington, D.C. of playgrounds, of waiting rooms of stations, of more than 40 product collections, of the Williamsburg Bathhouses in Brooklyn, of the Jet Blue terminal at JFK airport, of a University like John Hopkins in Washington – with a sophisticated interior backed by murals by the Ethiopian Elias Sime and the Brazilian Sandra Cinto, a work in which, according to Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of the New York Times, "David Rockwell and his Rockwell Group, New York specialists in theater and hospitality, have turned the downtown atrium into a beautiful and sunny complex of terraced classrooms and breakout spaces"—and even of a school like the Blue School, projects around which the same main idea always revolves: The people.
Today, Rockwell Group has offices in Madrid and Los Angeles and three hundred employees. In these 40 years, Rockwell Group has worked for chefs and restaurateurs such as Nobu (Robert de Niro), Matsuhisa, Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, José Andrés, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Danny Meyer, Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Samuelsson, Melba Wilson and many more.
The Rockwell-designed Carlotto Italian restaurant in New York.Evan Sung
David Rockwell's recent projects in New York include the design of the entrance, lobby, theatre and restaurant of the Perelman Performing Arts Center in the heart of the World Trade Center, a remarkable work by the Rex studio, home to emerging or established artists in theatre, dance, music, opera and film. The building was conceived as a 42-metre-high cube whose exterior is lined with a mosaic of almost 5,000 pieces of luminescent Portuguese marble, laminated on both sides with glass.
On the other hand, on the High Line, The Shed stands out, a cultural center designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro as lead architect and Rockwell Group as associate. An innovative structure of 18,580 square meters, a flexible building that can move, expand and contract by rolling the telescopic roof on rails, just as the trains that crossed the industrial High Line and West Side Railyard did. Next to it is the residential skyscraper 15 Hudson Yards, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with David Rockwell as chief interior architect. In the same area, Rockwell was responsible for the design of the Equinox Hotel New York, where the terrace with sculptures by Plensa that overlooks the waters of the Hudson is striking.
On a wall in David Rockwell's office hangs a sketch of the set of an Otello under which is a quote from Shakespeare's play – "We know what we are but we do not know what we can be" – accompanied by a dedication: "To David, who not only has the vision to know what 'can be', but also the art to make it happen, we honor you for your inspired leadership and dedication to public theater." Whether it's a theatre, a school or a restaurant, Rockwell's sets and interiors have something of a town square, spaces for remembrance, which can be activated in different ways, with bright colours or with walls with vegetation, familiar lobbies in which people cross paths and that seem to have been there all their lives, restaurants that unfold as a series of snapshots, irremediably episodic.
David Rockwell opens the door and says hello. Hold a lemon and mint juice in one hand with lots of ice. He wears black frock coats and a black sweater.
Current portrait of architect David Rockwell.Brigitte Lacombe
When you were a child and you were asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you answer? He changed his answer with great ease. At first I wanted to be a pianist. My father played the piano and there was always one in my house, but I never played as seriously as I would like. Luckily, six years ago I started taking classes. I met a great pianist named Seymour Bernstein, who once played for Leonard Bernstein and who just turned 97. I also wanted to be a magician. And in between I was always building things, because I was naturally interested in how to bring people together for moments of celebration. That's something that comes in part because I had a lot of losses early in my life and a lot of transitions. My father died when I was three and a half years old. My mother remarried and then we moved to New Jersey. Between those transitions I found the theater.
What do a theatre and a restaurant have in common? A lot of things, they're places where communities come together. Connecting people is the most important thing about my projects.
When did you know you were going to take the artistic path? Maybe the year I went to architecture school, when I was 18. The fact that I lived in Guadalajara (Mexico) from the age of 12 to 18 was very influential. I spoke a lot of Spanish then, now I don't, I'm sorry, and if I do it's with a Mexican accent. In Mexico I became very interested in public architecture thanks to the beautiful markets of Guadalajara, the plazas, the warm climate, the colors, the bullrings... So I went to architecture school with the idea that it would be something interesting. However, I wasn't sure that architecture was my thing until the second or third year, because the program was focused on the modern movement with very rigid views that I didn't share.
From Guadalajara, Jalisco, it was Luis Barragán, there he made his first works... He was one of my biggest influences.
I was going to ask him about them. The most important one is my mother, who was a dancer. Also the set designer Boris Aronson, one of the greatest set designers of the twentieth century; Maxfield Parrish, the painter, because he was very interested in his colors, and Luis Barragán, for sure.
Image of New Edition Hotel in New York.Nikolas Koenig
You are an architect by training and a designer by vocation, how did you go from one to the other? I think architecture is a good training because you learn to solve spatial problems and collaborate. That's very important. When I started my own studio in 1984, the first thing I was offered was a restaurant. I didn't know anything about restaurants. I knew more about theater. But the restaurant was a huge success and launched my career. Eight or nine years later I started to understand that the way the world works is by putting a box around people. That's how I thought about the four things that interested my studio: hospitality, celebration, movement and storytelling, and from there I was able to tackle other types of projects.
What does theatre mean to you? For me it's very interesting because I have to see how to bring together design, music, language and lighting to create a memory that lasts a lifetime. Architects want to create permanent buildings. Theatrical designers create something that lasts two hours. It's totally different. Even if it's the same play, every night it ends. And maybe because I've always been aware that life doesn't last forever, I understand how important it is to have moments of connection and celebration. Those are the two polarities: the creation of buildings that last forever and the creation of moments that must last forever.
One of my favorite movies is Louis Malle's Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street, the rehearsals of a play that take place near here... What is your favorite play? I like Shakespeare, of course... But I don't have a favorite play. My favorite work is the one I haven't done yet. Right now we're doingJohn Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize Doubt. There's a film version with Meryl Streep that I find fascinating, it's about a Catholic priest and the woman who runs the convent. How do we act in the face of doubt, in the face of the idea of uncertainty? It's interesting right now because we're living in a very polarized present where everyone is sure you're right or left and there's nothing in between.
Perelman Performing Arts Centre, a project that Rockwell has recently designed. Adrian Gaut
When you first started designing restaurants they weren't considered an opportunity for design like they are now. The importance and visibility of chefs has changed, how much we cook at home, how much we eat out... does cooking influence design? It must influence, the most important thing in a restaurant is the communion between the chef, the designer and the "producer". We work together. People realize that when one of those things doesn't work. There's a saying we say in theater: it's not good for the audience to go out whistling the set instead of whistling the music, and the same goes for a restaurant. If you come out of one wondering why it was so nice and the food wasn't great, I don't think it will last long. When you can find that bond, it's formidable. I think that's what happened with Nobu. Robert De Niro and I created a place that was unique and I think the service, food and design are so tied together that it allowed for its expansion in a natural and authentic way.
How important is lighting in your works? It's number one. My interest in lighting took a turn when we moved to Mexico, because the quality of light in Guadalajara is incredible. Then, in architecture school, I took a semester off and worked on Broadway for a lighting designer, and I understood how lighting sets the mood right away. It is multilayered, the light on the faces in the restaurant, the color of the food, different shots and scenes that make up a sequence, aspects that are often invisible to the customer, starting with how you look, how you feel. It affects everything.
How does the design of a restaurant adapt to the history of a kitchen and at the same time to the history of a city and the traditions of its culture? That's a lot of questions, I think. Designing a play, you start by reading the script and understand the story scene by scene. With the restaurant, the script we build is a conversation with the chef understanding the place and its culture. A restaurant in New York is not the same as a restaurant in Mexico. In a restaurant, food is important, but so is something as simple as a chair. Think about how personal the chair is and how long you're going to be sitting in it. Is it an hour and a half chair? Is it a two-hour chair?
Sake No Hana, on New York's Lower East Side, is pure Japanese refinement. Michael Kleinberg
I was very interested in the newly opened space at the Perelman Performing Arts Center, how did this project come about? I'm so grateful to be included in that project because I worked for the redevelopment of downtown New York after 11/30 and have lived in Lower Manhattan for over <> years. We can't forget that we are in a theatre, in an art centre. We wanted to create a space that was like a hug. If you walk up the stairs, the first thing you see is the ceiling. You can't see the ground. So we said, let's think of the roof as the welcome, and we're going to create a kind of flow that invites people into the building. It has something of Barragán, of course, contraction, contraction, surprises... On the other hand, as the building is very hard, we wanted soft, textured and welcoming surfaces, with felt walls, wooden lamps and lighting integrated into the profiles. There are plenty of places to sit, but each one creates a small area. One of the things I learned when I moved to Mexico was that the pace of life there is slower, there is more time to sit down for coffee and talk. When you go to the theatre in Europe, before and after there is room for a drink. So it was great to be on a project where there was a part of the lobby that would have its music and ample places to sit and comment before and after the show and grab a bite to eat, because one of the things I consider most sacred in buildings is for the audience to react together.
You think that vegetation is a kind of software of human life compared to the hardware of buildings, to what extent is wildlife, biological and natural life important in today's cities? I think it's fundamental, when people ask me what my favorite building in New York is, I always say it's Central Park. The greenery is on a building or it's in Union Square, which is a pocket park, you know, but I think the green spaces are what make the city livable. One of the great things about New York is that it has 600 parks all over the place and we try to incorporate them into all of our projects whenever we can.
In line with this question, from your point of view, what has the High Line brought to New York? Well, I used to walk along it when it was just an overgrown railroad line. And I think it's fired the imagination of the city. It has allowed us to see New York from a different perspective. We used to look at it from below or from above, not from the center, as it is now, and it also allows you to cross it at a different speed. So I think it has been a success that has brought about an important transformation.
The Shed Cultural Center, Rockwell's project with Elizabeth Diller.
How can New York combat the constant invasion of bad skyscrapers? I think there are things we can do about it. One is to understand that the story of New York is a story of survivors. Everyone looks at the sky, but you also have to look at the ground: at all the shops. How do you protect a unique and interesting store? Not everything can be Chipotle Mexican Grill or Starbucks. How to avoid uniformity? I think we need to rethink how to use those spaces, how to approach the ground floor and skyscrapers. I don't know the answer, it's a complicated question. After the destruction of Penn Station, landmarks began in New York. There may be enough alarm among New Yorkers to say that there has to be some evaluation process. But then you have to figure out who's going to evaluate, who's going to make the decision, what the criteria are... It's an interesting conversation, but I don't have an answer.
And what does New York mean to your career? I knew that sooner or later I was going to settle in New York. I loved the friction of the city and its energy. It's where my business is based, even though we have an office in Madrid and another in L.A. New York has many layers. I define myself as a New Yorker who loves the city and who has more or less spent his life studying it and trying to improve small parts of it.
The result of your collaboration with Elizabeth Diller in The Shed is spectacular, what is the point of union between you? We were friends and there was a request for proposals, a competition, from the city. 12 years before The Shed opened, Liz and I had worked together on a couple of things on a smaller scale. I invited her to a project we were doing in Hong Kong and then we did the Lookout together around ground zero in 2002. When we saw this repair proposal, we decided to join forces.
What are the challenges for an architect linked to New York like you in terms of housing, materials and spatial performance in the face of climate change? They're huge. It's an improbable, implausible city. It's so compressed and it's so dense that I think it's full of challenges. Every architect knows that climate change is a problem. But the fact that politicians are still not convinced of it is mind-boggling, but I think there are everyday decisions we can make in terms of sustainability. Liz Diller and I agree that as an architect you don't just respond to a client, you can do things... I'm working right now on a project that I can't talk too much about sustainability for a new non-profit to raise awareness about it.
The other day, when we met, he told me that he really liked Barcelona. Can you dig deeper? I went several times when I was studying in London because I was doing a project on the Palau de la Música. I know that Gaudí gets all the press, but for me Lluis Domènech i Montaner and that building are one of my decisive "bases of action", it is explosive and expressive... I also love Park Güell. It's probably one of the great parks in the world and I love the street life it generates.
Speaking of parks, he's designed a few for kids... You said that a design can come out of a crisis, and the Imagination Playground, made up of huge pieces of foam that children assemble as they please, was a response to 11/<>. For me, designing an airport or a playground is just as important. A playground is an opportunity to think about how design can improve our lives. There is a long tradition of architects who have looked at playgrounds such as Noguchi, Frank Gehry or Richard Dattner.
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