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David Rockwell: In conversation with an architectural genius

30 Sep 2021 | Updated on: 27 Sep 2022 |By Josh Sims

He’s the man you approach when you want your restaurant to look swanky (Maze, Nobu); your hotel to look chic (W New York, The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas); or your venue to possess a certain gravitas (the

David Rockwell, a lifelong fan of the Chicago Bears American football team, is suddenly cagey. “Well, I can’t confirm it,” he says. “But I may have embedded in the Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Fame one or two small references to the Bears, ones that only a true Bears fan would recognise. Then again, it may be that I just have to embrace a team that’s really bad to stop me getting too self-satisfied. I need them to be bad to give me creative drive.”

Creative drive is one thing that the New York-based Rockwell is not short of. Considered one of the world’s pre-eminent architects, Rockwell and his 250 staff have designed not only museums, but also airports and resorts, shops, hotels and restaurants – including, as with those in Marble Arch and Shoreditch, all of Nobu’s. He has renovated New York landmarks including the FAO Schwartz toy store and Grand Central Station. For the past 20 years he’s also turned his hand to set design for the likes of Hairspray, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Tootsie. He’s the only architect with both the Presidential Design Award and a Tony.

“And I can tell you that the Tony Awards are a much more fun event,” he laughs. “But then they have a kind of mythic quality to me after so many years of going to the theatre.”

Stage design for the 81st and 82nd Academy Awards, 2008, 2009, Dolby Theatre, Hollywood © Eric Laignel

Rockwell’s mother was a vaudeville dancer and choreographer. He and his four older brothers amounted to what he calls “a very hyper theatre group”. And he describes as one of his most seminal experiences, aged 12, being taken from the family home in New Jersey to visit New York’s Times Square to see Fiddler on the Roof. “I became obsessed with the idea of theatre. I went all the time,” says Rockwell, dressed head to toe in black, as designers so often tend to do. “I’d sit there criticising the sets. In fact, I went to one show with a lighting designer. After I was giving my critique, 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.”

When Rockwell did, arguably it changed his entire working practice – leading him to inculcate the foundational ideas of the theatre into his other design work, a crossover documented in a new book Drama (published by Phaidon). Rockwell has joked that it can seem that many architects secretly prefer their buildings free of those most cluttering of things – people. Not Rockwell.

“One thing at the core of our work is the idea of the audience,” he explains. “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 feedback loop. In theatre you have to seduce the audience and you need to do that with architecture, too. 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.”

The abandoned Kaufhaus Görlitz shopping centre, used as a film location for Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014. Markus Gebaur +

It’s why, also typically unlike many architects, Rockwell is unfazed by any of his work being temporary, rather than being distracted by the idea that buildings should stand monolithic for centuries. He’s designed a pop-up stage for the TED Theatre and a mobile kitchen for Jamie Oliver. He’s fascinated by the idea that every theatre performance is a one-off.

“And that notion of the ephemeral that’s so powerful and visible in theatre [has] really inspired me, the idea that the ephemeral leads to the adaptable,” he says. If you want to dig down for the roots of this, he adds, “I was brought up in a world in which the central idea was impermanence. My dad died when I was three, we moved around a lot – from Chicago to New Jersey to Mexico…”

It’s ironic then, in a way, that Rockwell is famously so invested in everything he designs, researching any category of design job that’s new to him for years before finally committing to working on a project. He appears to take the same approach with his hobbies. He played piano as a child – part of that theatrical tradition – but let it slide as his architecture training took over. Then, four years ago, he convinced a world-class teacher, Seymour Bernstein, already in his 90s, to take him on as a pupil.

The Circulation Ribbon at Nexus, The Waterline Club, Manhattan, 2020. Iscott Frances/permission granted by Gid Management.

“It’s interesting but slowly playing has reinforced ideas I’ve had about design,” he explains. “Part of what I think is critical in a design process is to do as much research as you can. It’s a toxic thing to think you know the answer to a new project before you start it, [but] a friend of mine, who’s a musician, says that at some time you have to conjure a solution. And it’s the same 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. At some point that preparation goes away and you have to play the music.”

Rockwell learns the scores to all the shows he works on. He went through a bit of a Springsteen phase, “which my friends tolerated”, but Chopin is currently his favourite. “I love Stevie Wonder’s music, too, so over lockdown I also had a teacher who taught me how to play harmonica. But I don’t play piano and harmonica at the same time,” he stresses. “You’ll never see me wearing one of those neck brace things to hold the harmonica on.”

Professionally speaking, right now all those research months and years are going into thinking about hospitals – “a building type that’s ripe for reconsideration,” Rockwell argues, “in terms of designing so as to help people feel emotionally safe.” There are also opera houses, public parks, Olympic opening ceremonies. “I love the small, intimate scale of those,” he quips. Even Covid memorials. These are all things he hasn’t yet designed, but would like to.

Lawn Installation, National Building Museum (NBM), Washington D.C., 2019, Timothy Schenck

“I think we need a little more perspective [on the pandemic] first, to pull the camera back a little bit. But I like the idea of a series of memorials globally,” he riffs, “all linked in some way, that intersect and look at how each individual place is different but how globally there are also similarities.”

Rockwell is certainly not precious about what he designs, as long as it provides, as he puts it, “an opportunity to think about how design can improve our lives.” He took to designing restaurants long before these were generally perceived by his compatriots in architecture as offering such an opportunity. In the wake of 9/11, considering the healing potential in play, he designed his Imagination Playground, comprising big foam blocks that children can work together to assemble in their own way.

There’s certainly an attractive playfulness, a levity of tone, that’s appealing in Rockwell himself. He’s not stuck in the high seriousness by which architects are often stereotyped – apart from, of course, that attachment to wearing the uniform of dark clothing.

“Why do I do that? Hmm, it’s a good question,” he says. “I think part of the answer is that if you have a basic uniform it’s just one less thing you have to think about, though I have moved on from black… to blue. But I also love texture so if you simplify the visual that allows you to focus on that aspect more. I’m actually meant to be going to a party at the weekend at which the theme is ‘The Great Gatsby’ so I’m not sure how I’m going to make a black T-shirt work at that one. I think I’ll just add a scarf.”

Read more: In conversation with fashion illustrator David Downton

Drama by David Rockwell with Bruce Mau and edited by Sam Lubell, £39.95,