The Architecture and Design of Rockwell Group

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This is a chapter from Pleasure: The Architecture and Design of Rockwell Group, published by Universe in 2002.


Like primitive people who refuse to be photographed because they believe that the camera will steal their souls, creative people tend to resist the neat, reductive catch phrases that others stick on them. Robert Venturi has never much liked being called a postmodernist. And David Rockwell bridles a bit if you call him an entertainment architect.

What people usually mean by entertainment architecture is the very duh definition: the design of theaters, casinos, theme parks, circus facilities, stadiums, restaurants with confected back stories—venues for professional entertainment. The phrase is faintly patronizing, and Rockwell understandably resists being squeezed into the confines of the pigeonhole—of any itsy-bitsy pre-fab category.

In fact, what makes his firm’s work interesting is not so much the fact that they’re responsible for a lot of elaborately designed restaurants and theaters, but the fact that in all of the work the approach is that of an entertainer. To David Rockwell, the people who visit his buildings are audiences, and he is strenuously, even heroically dedicated to keeping those thousands of customers interested, engaged, amused, jazzed, awestruck, entertained by the physical space itself. Entertainment is by definition populist, eager to please almost any way it can—and therefore inherently vulgar. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown notwithstanding, serious contemporary architecture mostly loathes vulgarity. Most serious architects lack the hubba-hubba gene that architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to Morris Lapidus had in spades. With the spectacular exceptions of the work of Venturi and Frank Gehry, serious contemporary architecture is very, very serious—poker-faced and cool, devoted to tastefulness above all. In an overwhelmingly Appolonian profession, Rockwell’s one of the Dionysians.

As a designer he says he’s interested in “friction . . . dissimilar things rubbing up against each other.” For the last century, we’ve known this as the collagist’s urge, of course, but I think it also constitutes a fundamentally childlike approach to design, design as a means of avoiding boredom and encouraging fun. Watch young children in their playrooms. A kid will mix radically disparate materials and textures and scales and species into a fantasy construction that has a story and makes entertaining sense to her—even if it looks motley or ridiculous to grownups who know that anime action figures and Lincoln Logs and chartreuse bubble wrap and Viewmaster slides and stuffed snakes and American Girl dolls “don’t go” together. Young children tend more toward the baroque than the minimalist. I think most kids would sign on to the Rockwell credo: “Walls don’t have to be white. Polite spaces don’t interest me.”

If I were going to invent a fictional childhood for David Rockwell, it would be hard to do better than the one he actually lived. His mother worked as a vaudeville dancer touring with Abbot and Costello, then as a choreographer in community theater on the New Jersey shore. When he was nine or so, he had two galvanizing cultural experiences more or less simultaneously: a day at the World’s Fair in New York (“It boggled my mind”) and a night on Broadway seeing his first show, Fiddler on the Roof. Then, a year later, his family picked up and moved to Guadalajara, Mexico—which meant that Rockwell spent his and his generation’s formative years watching bullfights and Cantinflas, essentially quarantined from U.S. pop culture as it exploded and started leeching its go-go sensibility into every nook and cranny of American life.

So a childhood fascination with theater—“the thrilling prospect,” as he says, “of controlling environments and stimulating audiences”—led in college to a fascination with architecture. “Architecture looked to me like theater you could move into,” he says. The impressionable Yanqui boy wandering through Mexican back streets and open-air markets (“I remember cast-in-place red concrete bullrings, and light filtering through trellises”) became the New York architect with an appreciation of vernacular craft, and a taste for the vivid. He went from being one kind of fish out of water in Guadalajara to a different sort of fish out of water in the architecture department at Cornell, a latent postmodernist in a modernist temple. His heroes in college were not Mies or Corbu, but sui generis genius vulgarians—Gaudí, Maxfield Parrish, Joseph Urban—visual entertainers whose love of color and spectacle and sentiment guaranteed their exclusion from the twentieth century’s canon.

And as the result of a fortuitous combination of temperament and timing, the David Rockwell approach to design caught two big zeitgeist waves.

The first wave was the one presaged by Venturi and Scott-Brown, the transformation of America into one vast, seamless mediadome. Architectural postmodernism is just one expression of a bigger paradigm shift toward the large-scale manufacture and consumption of storytelling and special effects and 24/7 fun. Traditional entertainment outlets have expanded madly during the last three decades—from two-screen movie theaters to six- to twelve- to twenty-screen multiplexes, from three TV channels to thirty to three hundred, from casinos only in Las Vegas to casinos all over the place. And every sort of built space (hotels, stores, restaurants, one’s living room, one’s car) became reconceived, during the nineteen-eighties and -nineties, as entertainment venues.

It’s hard to imagine more fertile ground on which to build a career like Rockwell’s. A cause and an effect of this shift has been a wholesale acceleration of the cultural metabolism: communication speeds up, fashion shifts more quickly, attention spans shorten, buildings are built and demolished in one generation. Under such hurly-burly conditions—more stuff competing for everyone’s attention, less opportunity for any given thing to grab anyone’s attention-making memorable movies and TV shows and stage shows and architecture becomes more and more about creating experiential jolts, new bits of holy-cow spectacle, what Rockwell calls “wow moments.”

Thus the success of his unapologetically attention-grabbing interiors; an architecture of special effects. He took Venturi and Scott-Brown’s ideas and ran with them gleefully, almost unselfconsciously, in a way that the originators have always seemed too anxious and dour to do themselves: Rockwell turned their “ducks” and “decorated sheds” inside out, making buildings that don’t just entertain passersby for a few seconds, but deepen and prolong the fantasy. Casinos, for instance, are the ultimate decorated sheds, never really extending their “theming” to the interiors of the gambling halls themselves. Yet at Rockwell’s Mohegan Sun casino, the half-real, half-synthetic Native American mythography is wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, immersive. To use the theatrical term of art, Rockwell breaks the casino’s fourth wall. He did the same thing with his sets for the Broadway production of the Rocky Horror Show, turning a large chunk of the stage into ersatz theater seating, thereby blurring the distinction between actors and audience in a show where that’s pretty much the whole point.

His success is significantly due, I think, to his visceral comfort with (or at least cheerful resignation to) the mutability and evanescence of life. He is not paralyzed by angst about posterity and architectural immortality. “There’s no way not to think about that,” he says, “but I try not to let it drive the creative process, and end up producing . . . Lincoln Center. The dream of being a master builder for all time is a mind fuck.” Again, the particulars of his life have inclined him to seize the moment and be here now: the peripatetic childhood, the immersion in the here-today-gone-tomorrow gestalt of theater, the early death of his father and then of his brother.

So in his work he embraces the ephemeral (colored light, LEDs, projected images) but not, crucially, the disposable. And yet in Rockwell’s highest-end work, the capital- and labor-intensive craft (millions of woven beads and an eighty-foot-high alabaster mountain at the Mohegan Sun casino, a cast glass wall at the Academy Awards theater) mitigate the pop insubstantiality. The buildings may be stage sets, but they’re awesome stage sets that will last as long as they need to last.
The second wave Rockwell caught is the generational shift toward Peter Pannishness. As a matter of style and etiquette adults today no longer regard adulthood as a fundamentally distinct zone from childhood; people born since World War II are driven by a pursuit of instant gratification and informality that used to be the exclusive province of children and teenagers. When I was young, parents did not wear blue jeans and sneakers, take bike rides, listen to rock-and-roll, watch cartoons on TV, buy comic books, play video games, go to science-fiction movies and theme parks without children, cultivate conoisseurship of cookies and ice cream or, when talking to friends about their jobs, ask, “Are you having fun?” Today they do.

Today people work and eat and shop and live in playhouses. And so David Rockwell—a forty-five-year-old man in sneakers and long hair who collects kaleidoscopes—designs buildings intended to please we middle-aged children. Rockwell has called his Pod restaurant in Philadelphia “a big jungle gym.” For adults, the pleasures of Cirque du Soleil (and Rockwell’s theaters for Cirque) are the childlike wonder they induce. The twenty-five-foot-high baseball cards at Turner Field in Atlanta, the cartoony Hollywood lobbies for Sony’s Lincoln Square theaters, and Animator’s Palate restaurant on the Disney cruise ships Disney Magic and Disney Wonder are all theatrical in a theme park sense, kiddie-esque special effects intended in each case primarily for adults.

Speaking of Disney, David Rockwell is obviously not the first American to make his name and fortune dreaming up recombinant entertainment experiences that mix storytelling and architecture and special effects. Indeed, he is working in an even older tradition, which Walt Disney revived and refined—that of P.T. Barnum, who put up grand, over-the-top buildings to house his extravaganzas, and whose genius was ignoring the conventional boundaries-between theaters and museums and circuses, between entertainment and education, public and private, high and low, fantasy and reality.

And it’s important to remember that fantasy feeds and shapes reality. As Disneyland helped inspire a generation of earnest architects and planners to invent New Urbanism, so have Rockwell’s never-never-land casinos in Connecticut inspired the Mohegans to reimagine and reanimate their own tribal culture. And so the phrase “entertainment architecture” doesn’t quite do the work justice: particularly given his wonder years in Mexico, a more apt pigeonhole might be a literary one from Latin America: David Rockwell, architecture’s turn-of-the-twenty-first-century magical realist.