August 2021 11 Min Read

Interview: David Rockwell

By Josh Sims

He is one of the world’s leading, as well as most diverse, architects. David Rockwell’s work has taken on many forms; restaurants – including all of Nobu’s – hotels, resorts, airport terminals, museums and other public institutions and, a second string to his bow, set designs for many plays and hit Broadway shows. The likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hairspray and Tootsie have all been carefully designed by his pen.

The son of a choreographer, the multi-award-winning Rockwell has been fascinated by the theatre since he was a child, and, as an adult, how the workings of the theatre and the arts intersect with those of design more broadly. Rockwell explains to us how playing the piano every day helps his creative process and why he has amassed a collection of vintage kaleidoscopes. Discover more about his broad spectrum of work and how he has managed to be equally as effective in so many disciplines below.

You’ve long worked as a designer for theatre. But you also like to perform yourself, as a keen pianist...

It’s actually been really helpful during Covid as part of an organised schedule, otherwise things can get a little fuzzy. My daily routine comprises an iced cappuccino, about an hour of piano practice and then some time organising my thoughts for the day.

How did you get into playing so regularly?

Quite how I got into piano could be a big detour in this conversation but there are certain things that you do and then when you look at them in the rear view mirror you see structured organisation that you didn’t see because you were just following intuition [at the time]. And so many experiences in my life have been the result of a long-term creative process: people I know for 15 years you suddenly find yourself doing a project with, or being interested in theatre design for 35 years before really engaging in it. With piano, my dad played, my mom was a dancer, and I learned to sight read music really early, then going through college I played piano a little bit. That was before architecture became all consuming.

But then you came back to it relatively recently?

Yeah, in the back of my head I always thought ‘some day I’m really going to learn how to play this’, and seven years ago I started to ask professional pianists I know ‘if I really wanted to play a Chopin prelude and understand what he had in mind and play more than 75% of the notes, how would I go about that?’ So I ended up meeting a great pianist called Seymour Bernstein, who played for Leonard Bernstein once and who’s just turned 94. I practiced sincerely for three or four months on one Prelude, played for him and he told me I could ‘play a little piano’, but that I should go to these other teachers, learn technique and then come back in a few years. And I looked around his apartment and I was already kind of in love with everything about him and said ‘listen Seymour, I really don’t have the time for that, I want to deal with you’. So he said I’d have to take a lesson every week, which I do – and that was four years ago.

Does playing help your work, other than to calm the mind, or as a distraction?

It’s interesting, but slowly it has become an important part of my life, reinforcing ideas I’ve had about design. Part of what I think is critical in a design process is to do as much research as you can and at some point, then taking that information and, with a beginner’s mind, to think about an approach that might be a unique outgrowth of all of that research. I do think the idea of the beginner’s mind, that ability to stay curious, is really important and one of the most critical components of when we hire people. It’s a toxic thing to think you know the answer to a new project before you start it. Anyway, a friend of mine, who’s a musician, says that at some time you have to conjure a solution. The research doesn’t give you the solution, but it is the foundation.

And you see that echoed in the work you put in at the keyboard?

Right. With piano I’ll work on a piece for four months to a year and each comes with new challenges, as to how to choreograph your body to produce those notes, and at some point, that preparation goes away and you have to play the music. There’s a thing in piano playing called ‘voicing’, whereby you play the same piece twice and you’ll hear a different melody, and you see echoes of that in theatre design, in the use of lighting being such a critical element, because lighting acts as the cinematographer, as it were, and to some extent determines where you look and what you see.

Your theatre work appears to inform all of your work in some sense...

I knew our practice was eccentric [from the outset] and wherever possible I like to lean in to how we’re different, not how we’re similar, staying the same is the enemy of creativity. And one thing at the core of our work is the idea of the audience. If you look at the built world through the filter of theatre you have to acknowledge that if there’s no audience, there’s no drama. It’s people that are the feed-back loop. In theatre you have to seduce the audience and you need to do that too with architecture. It can be the same for entire cities, the view of New York that’s most readily embraced is the view from the air, with all of its tall buildings. But cities without the software of people is just all hardware. Without the interactions with people, you don’t have the quality of the city that we enjoy. There are really interesting lessons from theatre in the way audiences relate to the stage and the way in which people relate to buildings.

Does your theatre design and your more ‘conventional’ architecture overlap?

I see the design for theatre and of architecture as a synthesis, but that understanding took a long time, and therefor my theatre career took a long time to develop too. I launched my studio in 1984 and didn’t do my first theatre work until 1999, and that was after meeting with directors for four years before that, just sketching solutions. The toolbox is different but there are very interesting overlaps, not least that both need to bring together various people, each with their own expertise, but which have to work together as an ensemble. And another intuitive example is movement, or choreography in theatre. Similarly in architecture we define spaces by the doors, by that sense of transitioning from one space to another.

'It’s actually been really helpful during Covid as part of an organised schedule, otherwise things can get a little fuzzy...'

David Rockwell

What first turned you on to the theatre?

Well, if you want to bring it down to plot points... When I was 12 my family took me to New York from New Jersey, where we lived. I already had a love of theatre from the community group my mum had helped found, but we did these things in New York; we walked though Times Square, had lunch at a famous Broadway restaurant called Schrafft’s, and we went to see Fiddler on the Roof. And those were foundational experiences for me. I became obsessed with the idea of theatre. I went all the time. I’d sit there criticising the sets. In fact, I went to one show with a lighting designer and after, I was giving my critique when he said to me “well, if you’re so smart, what would you do?”. Let’s say that it took me a while to answer that one.

I think some might see some tension between the temporary nature of set design and the permanence, and the fact that buildings, at least, might be around for centuries. Most architects tend to prefer the latter idea...

Well, if you ask whether I want the buildings we’ve designed to last forever, well of course we do. But the goal in much of architecture of being permanent sometimes gets in the way of looking at it in other ways. I was brought up in a world in which the idea of impermanence was central. My dad died when I was three, we moved around a lot – from Chicago to New Jersey to Mexico – and I grew up with four older brothers, so we were like this very hyper theatre group. So, I think that notion of the ephemeral that’s so powerful and visible in theatre really inspired me, the idea that the ephemeral leads to the adaptable. In a two-hour theatre experience, there’s something there that will never happen that way again. And I think that idea of the unique experience is very important when thinking about how we create the built world around us, and design from the audience out, not the facade in.

When did the penny drop that you weren’t just comfortable with this idea but wanted to explore it?

I think my ‘aha!’ moment in dealing with directors was realising that directors are really interested in transitions, in theatre in real time, much as in architecture, there’s a sense of how we all move through a city. Covid has brought good examples of that fluidity, restaurants moving outside, bike lanes moving between temporary and permanent, blurring the space between public and private space. It’s an example of how cities can be more adaptable. I think that’s why often theatres are more interesting looking out to the seats from the stage, because you can see all the mechanics of adaptability. You’re looking at pure potential. I think that’s why in set design you can’t give a complete picture either. If you fill in every single detail, there’s no place left for the audience to imagine where they might fit in. It’s the cracks in the reality that give people a way in and that’s true of the way buildings are designed too.

It’s not just theatre design that you’ve turned your hand to of course. Your portfolio covers everything from museums to restaurants, airports to playgrounds. Do they have equal weighting for you?

For me designing and airport or a playground are just as important. Of course, programmatically an airport is one of the most complex projects because you have incoming passengers, outgoing ones, security, luggage, and so on. But a playground [the likes of Rockwell’s Imagination Playground, comprising of huge foam parts that the children assemble as they see fit], while not as a complex, is no less an opportunity to think about how design can improve our lives. Like many chapters in our history, a design can grow out of crisis and the playground was a response to 9/11, when we started thinking about what wasn’t represented [in the re-assessing of New York that followed] and what wasn’t represented was play. There’s actually a great history of architects looking at playgrounds on and off – Noguchi, Frank Gehry, Richard Dattner. But I think when I similarly started out looking at some spaces, like restaurants, they perhaps weren’t considered such an opportunity for design as they are now. With restaurants pretty much everything has changed since then – the importance and visibility of chefs, how much we cook at home versus how much we eat out, and so on. There’s been a real chance to try new things.

You’re thinking about a design for a Covid memorial too?

We did a sketch project for a Covid memorial for New York Magazine and that’s something I’d like to pursue, but I think we need a little more perspective [on what’s happened], to pull the camera back a little bit. I like the idea of a series of memorials globally, all linked in some way, that intersect and look at how each individual place is different but how globally there are also similarities. It would be about trying to find a unique back story for that. Can you make that happen? [But] there are lots of things I’d like to design.

We did a children’s hospital in the South Bronx and that was super interesting, and I think there’s more to be done [with architecture in relation to] adaptable healthcare, which deals with lots of complicated problems about how you make people feel emotionally safe. It’s a building type that’s ripe for a reconsideration. I’d like to do an opera house, I think it would be great to have one that doesn’t hide so much of what it takes to stage an opera. I’d like to do an Olympics opening ceremony, because, you know, I love the small, intimate scale of everything... But the idea of painting on that scale, of celebration, is really appealing.

'If you fill in every single detail, there’s no place left for the audience to imagine where they might fit in. It’s the cracks in the reality that give people a way in...'

David Rockwell

You once said something akin to “a great idea is one that survives reality”, which sounds like a useful truism...

Well, if you start out with a robust enough point a view – a narrative, but not a narrative that prescribes a solution – then it can survive the realities it has to face. Think about the realities you have to face when working on an architecture project – money, timing, materials not working - every project is fraught with a series of challenges. But you still maintain a strong enough clarity if in the end you can look at the project and it still represents what that point of view was. If your idea depends on every single thing going exactly as you plan it to go, you’ve built a situation in which it absolutely won’t work. You have to be fluid while having the DNA of the thing still legible at the end.

You’ve scooped a number of awards over the years, from a Presidential Design Award to a Tony. Which do you treasure most?

They’re both important, but the Tony Awards is a much more fun event. They have a kind of mythic quality to me after so many years of going to the theatre. The person who directed Hairspray, Jack O’Brien, the second show I did, which was not only a huge hit but really transformational for me and hypnotic for me to be there, on the opening night he gave me a really, really good piece of advice. He said “you now need to get as far away from this as possible, because this isn’t going to happen again, you can’t count on anything being received this way again, just move on to the next thing.” And the same can be said of awards. The Tony Award was for She Loves Me which was such a loaded experience for me, not least that the man who wrote the lyrics [Jerry Bock], also co-wrote Fiddler on the Roof which I saw when I was 12. If you were doing the plot lines to a movie of this, it would have so many amazing intersections.

There are other ripples back to your childhood too of course, you still collect kaleidoscopes, and vintage illustrations of magic tricks. These also seem to be about theatre and transformation...

I don’t really know what started the collection of kaleidoscopes. They’re hard to find because they all tend to be made by old hippies now, but there are some beautiful antique ones and what’s interesting is that essentially they take elements you’re familiar with – pebbles, feathers – and they get reconfigured in fresh, surprising ways. I’ve always found that idea inspiring. It’s kind of the same with the principles of magic, which I’ve always been a student off – it’s interesting to note that the idea behind a trick has been thought of many times before and long ago, so it’s all about how you use it now. I never got into doing magic tricks myself though. When my kids were little, I’d do these terrible tricks and I’d say “I’m not going to tell you how that was done” and they’d say “we don’t even care, it was that bad.”

Our thanks to David Rockwell for sharing his story and his team for help in organisning this interview, to find out more about Rockwell’s work, the new book Drama, published by Phaidon has just been released.