Rockwell Group Update

Since conducting this interview in July '98, the Rockwell Group has completed a number of projects; including the Cirque du Soleil performance center at Disney World (pictured here) and a jewel of a gas station which is adjacent to the Mohegan Sun. And RG continues the development of major projects like Academy of Motion Picture Arts in Hollywood which is slated for completion in 2001.

But also, since then, the theme restaurant business has crashed; most chains' revenues and stock prices have plummeted, many restaurants are up for sale and the construction and development of new projects have drastically slowed. Several of Rockwell's clients have suffered and a few of his interesting restaurant projects have fallen through. The reasons for this turnaround, that took the industry by surprise, are listed as overbuilding, poor management, bad food and lost novelty. It is only that last item that is a design issue. Design firms, like Rockwell's, take the somewhat self serving position that what's needed to maintain novelty in the restaurants is a frequent renovation of the design and decor. But one wonders if any design or decor, if any "built" environment can keep pace with desires and expectations set by the entertainment industries, by film and TV.

In a New York Times interview from last December (when the crisis first became public), James Berk, CEO of Hard Rock Cafe International, said, "The industry's going to constrict dramatically and somewhat violently, either through bankruptcy or restaurant closings. There will be no additional worldwide theme restaurant chains. Instead what will be left will be either good restaurants or some single-site themes called 'one-off'' operations -- restaurants located just outside major tourist attractions that depend on the tourist stream for survival." A good example of a "one-off" restaurant is Michael Jordan's Steak House in Grand Central Station which features an elegant, almost traditional, woody-and-glowy Rockwell design. The food is reported to be excellent, the location is unbeatable and it has proven a huge success-so much so that other versions in other cities are being planned . . . sounds like a chain to me.

Celebratory Spaces
Interview with David Rockwell [July, 1998]
by Dike Blair

The Rockwell Group's architecture first grabbed me after a visit to the Mohegan Sun casino.1 The Mohegan Sun's design, like that of most contemporary casinos, gives the gambler a sensation of comfort and orientation.2 Unlike casinos along a strip or boardwalk, however, which compete for the gambler's attention through brute spectacle and candle power, this one is plopped in the middle of the woods, which allows for a more subtle and seductive design approach without the fear that the gaming moth will be drawn to a brighter neighboring flame.

One enters the Mohegan Sun through one of four towering, totemic tree-trunk structures, which lead into a gigantic circular, warm-and-glowy lodgelike interior awash with the familiar sounds of the slot machine orchestra. The immediate sensation of coziness is exceptional for a casino or, for that matter, any single enclosure of 200,000 square feet. The space is divided into season-themed quadrants, which can be circumnavigated along an outer walkway, described by a (real) stone fence, along which are restaurants and specialty gaming rooms. There's also some nongaming stuff that commands your attention: a grove of life-size and lifelike artificial pines that grow (figuratively speaking) inside a food court, floating fiberglass animal hides with mysterious markings, lots of lashed branch trellises with stretched screens upon which images (like vaguely Warholian feathers) are projected, and an open-air central lounge (the Wolf Den) with a stage backed by a twenty-five-foot boulder cliff.

The effect of all of this isn't particularly artificial or cheesy, and you are in a casino, after all. Perhaps this is because the materials are of high quality and there is more than a simple "theme" going on; there's a "narrative." According to the Rockwell Group, this narrative has something to do with tribal legend, which involves thirteen moons and a "life trail." Whatever. I felt like I was exploring the deserted architectures in Myst or Riven and not really trying to understand a history that is atmospheric and decorative rather than literal. And the exploration was amusing and fun.

When I visited the Rockwell Group's offices,3 I was shown a videotape of a newly completed project, which confirmed for me that the firm is creating much more than run-of-the-mall entertainment architecture. The project is the Animator's Palate, a restaurant aboard the Disney Magic.4 The story here is that the restaurant environment is a 3D black-and-white animation cell during your appetizer, and by the time you're having desert and coffee, it's transformed into a full-color moving cartoon. This is accomplished by using technologies such as fiber optics to gradually colorize details like the watercolor-brush columns and moving projectors, which transform the images in the picture gallery from static line drawings into fully animated cartoons. I understand that the waiters will don progressively more colorful uniforms and the food itself will accelerate in chroma during the course of the meal. The detail of the accouterments-from cartoon cutlery and palette plates to vinyl chair fabrics that are abstractions of Mickey's shorts-completely engages the diner for the length of the meal. What I find particularly brilliant is the architects' realization that they could use the cruise ship's highly controlled environment to their own conceptual ends by employing the narrative structure held in common by the movies and meals: beginning, middle, and end.

The Rockwell Group's press kit is of novella length; its projects include more than forty Planet Hollywoods, more than a dozen Manhattan restaurants, the renovation of Radio City Music Hall, the new Academy Awards Theater in Los Angeles, and the equivalent of urban plans for the Bronx Zoo, Disney Downtown in Orlando, and Caesar's Circus Maximus in Las Vegas.5 The firm's forty-two-year-old principal architect, David Rockwell, has achieved near-celebrity status.6 Rockwell was born in Chicago but spent a great deal of his childhood in Mexico. He flirted with a career as a concert pianist but decided on architecture and attended Syracuse University and the Architectural Association in London, forming his own business in 1984. Rockwell has that I-wear-a-wild-tie nonconformity common to architects. His friendly demeanor, good sense of humor, and collection of kaleidoscopes and toys work in concert with his obvious drive and professionalism in ways that befit the premier designer of fun environments. Like other architects and designers with predominantly corporate clients I've talked to, he was guarded,7 but he was by no means wishy-washy. He spoke with great pride and enthusiasm about work that sometimes gets less than its due partly because it's popular. I've seen the proof that whenever clients have loosened the reins and the purse strings, Rockwell has created astounding and innovative architecture.

Dike Blair: Do you label what you do-"entertainment architecture," for example?

David Rockwell: I really think that labels are pretty limiting. Because of market pressures, there's this thing called entertainment architecture. I don't have a problem with it as a term, but I think what's more interesting is looking at the pursuit of creating places that create a sense of joy and engage people. We see that not as a specific type of architecture, but as an attitude that we try to weave into all of our architecture and projects. One of the things about "entertainment" architecture is that it kind of slights "regular" old architecture. All architecture has an equal chance to be engaging. You can think of what we do as being very traditional architecture-if you look at Michelangelo, Schinkel, or Palladio, there's a tradition of celebratory public spaces-but we're also very modern in terms of our use of collage and the juxtaposition of dissimilar elements. We try to combine the traditional and the modern.

Dike Blair: How do you feel about the disposable quality of some of what you do?

David Rockwell: I've said this before, but I think that the goal of striving for permanence in architecture is overrated and can be very stifling. Having said that, I want to say that in fifty years I look forward to seeing as many of our projects as possible, where appropriate, still around. We see what we do as a continuum. Projects that have the program and reason and content to be more permanent will be more permanent. And they can always be updated.

Dike Blair: I like it that your work is playful without being ironic or self-referential and that it doesn't apologize for itself.

David Rockwell: We're pretty straightforward. We like the idea of infusing cultural references and making people smile-not comments on comments about architecture. Our references are to things outside architecture, like the movies or theater.

Dike Blair: Artists like Claes Oldenburg are sometimes mentioned in relation to your work. Who are your favorite artists?

David Rockwell: There's a whole bunch of them: Dale Chihuly, Arthur Ganson, Dan Flavin, Hugh Ferris, Fritz Lang, Boris Aronson.8 I'm interested in artists who deal with light in a particular way, certainly Monet, and I'm really interested in Matisse's abstraction. And Joseph Svaboda, he was a German theater designer who worked with lighting; he was a major innovator in creating lighting as form in the theater.

Dike Blair: I noticed the large window in the Doral 9 inspired by Diebenkorn-is he a favorite?

David Rockwell: He's a favorite in terms of appropriateness for that project. We're constantly looking at art and looking for new artists-it's important to what we do. It's the same with technology. Once we gain an understanding of the point of view of a project, we try to come up with artists and technologies that support it.

Dike Blair: Are there technologies that you can't wait to get your hands on?

David Rockwell: We're always interested in new lightweight materials. I'm meeting with someone tomorrow about some possibilities around holography. We almost had an opportunity in Europe to do a mammoth outdoor projection,10 and I can't wait to utilize that. And the virtual room has some really interesting possibilities. We're always thinking about what can be done with rooms that will transport you to another time and place, and we're interested in creating places that really are immersive. The Animators Palate is a situation in which we're dealing with a technology that is quite old but has never been applied to architecture; it's been applied to theater. To some degree we are using lighting and animation to create a kind of virtual room.

Dike Blair: You mention immersive spaces. What's the difference between immersive and escapist?

David Rockwell: There can be a space that's escapist but that has a thin idea and isn't immersive at all. Spaces that are immersive are escapist; they take you to another time and place. Gaudi's Sagrada Familia is incredibly immersive.

Dike Blair: Do you think that CAD is a reason for the thinness and the dominance of surface in your architecture?

David Rockwell: I'm not sure I agree with that premise. If you look at the Mohegan Sun, for example, and you strip away all of the surfaces, what makes it work is the basic architectonic concept. One of the things we're doing is imbuing projects with a level of architectonic thought that they don't normally receive. The surfaces are the dazzling thing you remember, but the reason you remember the experience may be because it is cinematic. You move through the space like a camera dolly and view an incredibly complex series of layers on the ceiling, which have been set up by the narrative.

Dike Blair: Do you distinguish between narrative and theme?

David Rockwell: I think there is a difference. The Mohegan Sun is an example of narrative-driven architecture, while the Doral Inn may be more theme oriented. For the Doral we presented the board of directors with this big, abstract four-by-five-foot box filled with stones and pebbles and grass and herbs-the idea being that this hotel would be an urban oasis, so that became a theme. The word theme in architecture gets used in a way suggesting a two-dimensional application, but that's not the case here. I have no problem with theme as something that is integral to a project.

Dike Blair: Your work is dense; there's never a blank surface. You've mentioned Luis Barragán as an influence, yet I don't find anything analogous in your work to his sense of serenity. Do you ever want to give people "nothing" to contemplate?

David Rockwell: I don't think Barragán deals in nothing; he was very committed to a vocabulary. That was his exploration. Our exploration has more to do with other ideas, ideas of collaboration. We don't have a strong stylistic point of view that everything has to fit into. In our office we have model makers, artists, craftsmen, and filmmakers, and all of this works toward a spirit of collaboration that the clients become part of. I am fascinated by spaces about introspection. I think the Mohegan Sun has elements of it, and the Doral Inn is about a very intense serenity, almost a kind of a secret cocooning.

Dike Blair: While we're on Barragán, he said, "Without religion, without myth, there would be no cathedrals or pyramids-no history of art." 11 Are advertising, celebrity, sports, and entertainment the new religion?

David Rockwell: I think that's a stretch. What Barragán is talking about is the passion behind the work. Without passion there would be no artistic expression. The entertainment corporations are wonderful patrons and wonderful clients, but they're not where artists or architects draw their passion from. You've got to find your own unique source of where to find that passion.

Dike Blair: Is your source of passion entertainment and the theater?

David Rockwell: Our source of passion is about spontaneity and place making, creating spaces that thrill and engage, that trigger memories, thoughts, and feelings. We really feel fortunate to be able to do the kind of work we do.


1 This is a Native American reservation-based casino in southeastern Connecticut. The Mohegan tribe (James Fenimore Cooper's Mohicans) was dispersed and almost defunct when its members were gathered by Sol Kerzner (Sun City's casino impresario) to formally petition the government for a gaming license. The Mohegan Sun was completed in 1996 after a mere thirteen months of construction. Rockwell Group worked in tandem with architect Brennen Beer Gorman, with the theme (or narrative) being Rockwell's.
2 See Dike Blair, "Entertainment and Entertainment," Flash Art , #193 (March-April 1997): 90-94.
3 The offices occupy two floors and 21,000 square feet on Union Square in New York City. There are 175 full-time, mostly young employees, and unlike some other offices, which feel like the deck of the Bounty, the vibe in the studios was very good. For one week every month a masseuse visits the offices to give a twenty-minute massage to any employee who signs up.
4 This is Disney's first cruise ship, which was due to have its shakedown cruise in July 1998.
5 This list is extremely abbreviated. Rockwell Group does theaters, retail stores, offices, and residences as well as sets for television. The feedback relationship between the firm's work and television would amount to another full-length article.
6 Rockwell has been profiled in Newsweek, the New York Times, and New York Magazine and is the recipient of multiple "Designer of the Year" type awards.
7 Although I understand a healthy fear of the press, it seemed unnecessary that Allen Prusis, one of Rockwell's senior administrators (who gave me a wonderful tour of the offices), was deliberately on hand during the interview. And Rockwell declined to answer directly, for example, when I asked which were his favorite projects, demurring, perhaps, so as not to alienate those clients not on the list.
8 In his work and in this answer, Rockwell tends to mix art, architecture, design, and craft.
9 Rockwell did a major renovation of the Doral Inn, now called W, in midtown Manhattan.
10 This was to have been a mammoth ceiling projection and café sponsored by Coca-Cola in the Stade de France, Paris.
11 From an interview with Luis Barragán by Marie-Pierre Toll, House and Garden, September 1981, 140.