Architect, David Rockwell, is renowned for his transformative work of public spaces, and has been at the forefront of helping the hospitality sector in New York reconfigure and adapt to a more restricted world.
TAIT’s Brian Levine catches up with David to get his thoughts on the role of technology in architecture, the importance of collaboration, and how the pandemic will provide opportunity to shape public spaces for the better.
Brian: Tell us a bit about your practice and your ethos. What drives David?
David: If you look at the work we do as a studio, a lot of it has to do with understanding that design brings people together for moments you can connect, in a world that’s essentially uncontrollable. Like this year, being in New York and being a part of this awful pandemic, it’s been interesting to see how the city exists with no people on the streets, it feels much like an empty theatre. People are what make something inert, come to life. And those have really been the two loves of my life, public space and theatre. As our studio has grown over the last 35 years, we’ve really found the intersections between those two things.
Brian: That aligns very much with some of the things that drive TAIT as an organization, there seems like a natural fit there. In your process, where does it make sense to bring us together, and how do we help you do what you do?
David: TAIT has been an organization we’ve come back to over and over, and I think the key qualities that make them a good collaborator is they’re willing to participate in the very beginning, when many things often don’t get traction. It takes a lot of pursuit to find those projects that really happen. It’s been a dialogue over many years about lots of ways to bring movement to life, to bring our interest in technology and architecture together, and to bring rapid deployable solutions, which is a particular passion of mine. Our practice was founded on the basis of collaboration. We start within our own studio, to try and look at a problem from different ways and then the collaboration extends to key people in the outside world. People who bring expertise, but who don’t come in believing they know the answer before they begin.
Brian: Let’s talk a bit about technology and how that comes into play. What kind of projects benefit most from the use of tech?
David: Rockwell Group started a technology lab – creatively named ‘LAB at Rockwell Group’ – in 2006. My goal was to find a way to use and integrate technology into our projects, that instead of separating people, brought everything closer together. We don’t look at technology as replacing how we work, or shifting how we think about work, but it has supplanted just using sticks and bricks, and it’s given us an additional tool to use in several key projects. The first breakthrough project for the LAB was The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, which posed a very large hardware, software coding problem. The way the content is programmed into the architectural installation we created was done in an open source way, so years later, many different artists can create their content and put it up. A project that was a great collaboration with TAIT was OMNIA, a huge nightclub in Las Vegas. The idea was to create a sense of grandness, taking inspiration from European opera houses. Together with Willy Williams and TAIT, we were able to create a protagonist in our opera house – the chandelier – that the DJ could control, and it could quite literally shrink the volume of the room. So, when there was a bigger audience it could expand out and when it was a smaller audience it could reduce. It exceeded our expectations and the client’s too, and it wouldn’t have been possible without a long-term, deep relationship with TAIT. Then more recently we have completed an installation in Brookfield Place in New York, called Luminaries. It goes back to days when I was a teenager in Mexico, and light and fire were such significant parts of festivals and holidays. We were also thinking about the rituals of holiday celebration in New York – the Rockefeller Center Tree, the dressing of store windows – and we wanted to create something unique to add to that. It was originally designed so that you would touch these wishing stations, make a wish, and then the ceiling of 600 different cubes with infinite RGB lighting would change and morph, based on the color you selected with your touch.
Now, of course, we’ve re-engineered that to be touchless, using cameras that pick up many levels of depth.
Brian: How do you think Covid-19 is going to influence public spaces in the long term?
David: There are four or five projects that we’re looking at right now, some of which are ways to provide things for the city that are a rapid response to Covid-19. We’re living in this time of such enormous change and one of the biggest things will be how we use the streets, and how public space is defined. I think it’s a chance to really be a part of the future of New York. Historically, the way we use our cities are deeply affected by health and pandemics. Central Park was a direct public health response and right after the flu of 1918-19, there were radical changes in mechanical systems and how buildings were conceived. I think the city and the world will come back to life in a different way. There will need to be flexibility, nimbleness, and resourcefulness. Not just in physical layout, but also in usage. The pandemic has exposed a lot of pre-existing problems. If you look at the hospitality industry, for example, they have very small profit margins, and landlords that are not taking a real risk. Thinking about human-centric design, a sense of welcome will need to be integrated with sanitation – it will no longer be a back of house requirement. Private spaces may spill out into the public space and the streets more, and places may operate 24/7, flipping between day and night use. I think it will be an impetus to rethink how things are done. And I’m an optimist, I think we’re living through a moment where designers have a chance to make a profound impact on the world around them.