You might not know David Rockwell’s name, but scenes of your life have probably unfolded within spaces he designed. If you’ve dined at Nobu, stayed at the Chambers Hotel, travelled through the JetBlue terminal at JFK, watched the Oscars, or seen a game at the Pittsburg Steelers Stadium, you know his work.
David Rockwell leads the Rockwell Group, a team of architects that take a cross-disciplinary approach in creating and designing films and hospitals, playgrounds and museums. We take on “projects that engage people in a compelling way,” David says. The goal is not just to build a pretty space, but to allow for the best possible experience.
When David set out to design the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, he found that nurses, doctors, and parents knew exactly what they wanted. But what did the patient want? For David, “the ah-ha moment, the innovation, was realizing you can use design to interrupt briefly the fear kids about have about hospitals.” He would get rid of the horrid creak of the curtain closing around the bed, the monotony of every floor—small details that make a huge difference for a sick kid.
David always loved to create. He grew up in a big family—there were five boys—and they moved around a lot. “The one constant thing that engaged me and my brothers was building stuff. I was always taking the things we found in the neighborhood and creating low tech construction projects.”
His mom, once a vaudeville dancer, helped set up a community theater in New Jersey. Even as a kid, David could see the theater’s transformative power: it “turned this very private suburbs on the shore into a public community.”
Moving from New Jersey to Guadalajara, Mexico, was “like landing on another planet.” If suburban Jersey was a patchwork of insular homes, Mexico was the opposite. Life played out in public spaces—the streets were full of constant bustle, mariachis and music played, markets buzzed with shoppers. “I fell in love with that vibrant, exciting, chaotic way of life.”
David’s interest in theater evolved into an interest in public space. What fascinated him was “not just the buildings, but all of the activity that connected buildings.” David’s projects are always focused on that activity. The irony is that all his “lavish planning, detailing, and obsessing about every piece of design is there to allow for spontaneity, which you can’t design. That’s what’s thrilling.”
These days, David makes it to the theater about twice a week. It’s important, he thinks, to keep the impulse to play alive. David found a way to integrate his passion for theater into his work. He planned the sets for “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Hairspray,” among other Broadway shows. “In an economy with less money, where everyone is stressed out and cranky, one of the greatest gifts is staying attuned to what your passion is,” he says.
The room to take risks is one of the most important tools he gives himself and his staff. “When you’re in the moment doing the work you’re not worried about failure,” David explained. “You can’t be.” Not even when he tore up the seats he himself had built in the Kodak Theater for the Oscars to “remove the vast physical and emotional moats between audience and stage.”
“There’s a million reasons not to change anything, but by disruption and creative thinking you can make it so much better,” David says. As the father of a five year-old and a seven year-old, David spends a lot of time in playgrounds. David felt that playgrounds “prescribed a linear way to play.” They focused on building “strength, not imagination or creativity.” What if there could be a different kind of playground? A place where kids could manipulate raw materials, build things, create their own environment?
“Before you innovate you have to imagine,” says David, “you have to be able to see outside the lines and outside the rules.” David took his idea for a new kind of playground to the New York City department of Parks and Recreation. Imagination Playground is scheduled to open this summer. Now there is a partnership with KaBoom!, plans to build Imagination Playgrounds across the country, and a Playground in a BOX, which he described as the “kid version of rock n’ roll tour.”
The Rockwell Group is fueled by creative tension—“we don’t know what will come out before we begin.” They set out to design the great room that would great travelers as they came in and out of the JetBlue Terminal at JFK. 20 million people moving through each day was “our greatest challenge, but also our greatest asset.” David brought in a choreographer friend to help; he saw the flow of people as a sort of massive dance. The space’s most important quality was to allow for “intuitive ways of moving.”
David’s work, he says, stems foremost from dreaming and imagining. If you’re “not curious, not driven to try out new ideas and new things it’s not going to work,” says David. It’s a problem he has never had.