For famed architect and designer David Rockwell, the definition of the workplace extends beyond a space for work: it’s a space that brings people together while enabling self-expression.
Architect and designer David Rockwell, the founder of Rockwell Group, discusses his firm’s wide-ranging body of work—Broadway theaters and sets, restaurants, Imagination Playground, hotels, the JetBlue terminal at J.F.K. Airport—and how these projects have informed his workspace designs, including NeueHouse and the headquarters for Warner Music Group and WME.
Envisioning the work environment as a place that facilitates process, Rockwell shares his philosophies around adaptability and flexibility. He also brings up an often-ignored—but still essential and potentially transformational—element of architecture: the ceiling.
Read more about Rockwell’s projects and how his love of theater sets has shaped his approach to design here.
SPENCER BAILEY: David, welcome. It’s great to have you in the studio here today.
DAVID ROCKWELL: Great to be here.
SB: I wanted to start with your own personal approach—how you look at the world. It’s really about architectural rigor, performance, this element of theater. How do you think about your design work as a means to improve culture, both in and out of the office, in your projects?
DR: That’s a good question. I had an interesting discussion recently with [the restaurateur] Danny Meyer. I’m working on a book right now on the relationship of theater and architecture. I was having a discussion [with him] about rituals and memory. I think so much of what creates memorable, rich experiences are…. Yes, they’re all the things the architects deal with having to do with permanence, but they’re all of the many, many conditions that have much more to do with evolution and change and serendipity.
I asked him—we were there in the morning and they were just setting up the restaurant—and he said he has a sense in the morning, with how people are setting up the table, with how the day is going to be, the intentionality of how they’re doing that. It made me think about—one of the things I’m studying is theater—think about the year and a half or two years [for] the thirty professionals who worked on that two-hour moment where the theater is alive, right? You’re getting a two-and-a-half-hour—if it’s long—two-hour experience that will create memories that may last your lifetime, that involved years of people collaborating to make that happen. I think that that is one of the things I’ve discovered that I love doing in public space. The New York I fell in love with when I was 12 really wasn’t skyscrapers. It was much more messy streetscapes.
SB: Yeah. One element of your work that’s so central is the notion of play. Your project probably most notable in this arena is Imagination Playground. Could you talk about the value of play, and how you create spaces with that in mind?
DR: Everything looks different in the rearview mirror. But when we started the playground, which grew out of a post-9/11 effort that originally was the viewing platform at Ground Zero—with Liz Diller, Ric Scofidio, and an architect named Kevin Kennon—we set up a foundation to do that. After that was complete, one of the people who had given money for the foundation said, “What’s your foundation going to do next?” And I said, “That was it.” It was kind of a one-shot foundation, and he said, “Why don’t you discover something else to do?”
So I spent about a year looking at building a new arts center, on Fulton Street, that was visual and performing arts together. As I got into it, I realized the uphill battle of city, state, every agency, and in a moment of frustration (I had been looking at Pier 26, where my kids used to play), I said, “I should’ve just given the city a playground.” That began a couple of years of research, and I went back to thinking about how, in my particular case, as a kid [I was] moving around a lot—I lost my dad at a very young age, we moved from Chicago to the Jersey Shore, moved around there, and then moved to Mexico when I was 12.
DR: Guadalajara. Which was, like, a godsend. It was such a great move. I didn’t know it at the time. But play in every facet of building, and having the physical world being an ongoing thing you’re invested in as a way to connect with people was a lifesaving, galvanizing experience for me. It’s clearly what drove my interest when we got to Mexico, my interest [to] move beyond theater to street theater and marketplaces. When I started looking at playgrounds, it was interesting to note how much of the great play equipment all over the city was based on linear play versus collaborative, group play.
We did what we do with every project. We did a lot of research. Adrian Benepe, who’s one of my all-time heroes—he was the commissioner of parks—I called him up and I said, “I have this new idea for a playground.” He said, “Great,” and it was five years of R&D and research. Our first playdate, we had test playdates with kids. It was public schools and private schools. The city helped put it together. The whole theory was [that] kids would make up their own rules to play and they would take these various blocks and create things together.
We had a woman named Penny Wilson, who is from London—she’s like the Mary Poppins of adventure playgrounds in London—[she] came over to be part of our playdate. All the adults surrounding the kids came out and they looked at the pieces, and the first thing they did is the boys started whacking each other with the noodles, and you could just see the parents were so ready to jump in and organize it. We waited a minute or two, they stopped doing that, and kids started building towers, individually. Another five or ten minutes, and you could see one kid look at someone else’s tower and say, “How do I connect that to my tower?” So it went from aggression to individual play to group play in a way that was not unlike what we want to have happen at NeueHouse. When companies come in, they can move from aggression to collaborative play.
SB: Wow. Yeah, I love that. And connected to this, of course, is the idea of creating spaces with narrative and purpose. You’re known for your books, the titles of which, I think, sum up your work nicely. So, What If…?, which came out in 2014; Spectacle, from 2006; and Pleasure, from 2002. The notions of “what if…,” “spectacle,” “pleasure”, these sorts of narratives… How do you weave those into your design work?
DR: Well, we just finished Warner Music’s new headquarters in L.A.—Warner Music Group. In terms of how we constructed a narrative, well, part of the narrative was the building. It was this 1930s Ford factory that was built as a tribute to American manufacturing. There was clearly an overlap between that and Warner.
The biggest challenge was the key to the solution, and that is there were six different labels, each with a very different culture. I think it’s safe to assume [that] many didn’t want to be in the same building as the others. Yes, they were part of Warner Music Group, but these are competitive labels. So we had to create a way that they could live with their own individual cultures, but then—much like a park in a city—we created a couple of seductive draws, including “Center Stage,” which is a tiered lobby that becomes a 250-seat venue that any of the labels can use, and the cafeteria doubles as their version of co-working. It’s called “The Living Room.” Like anything, we found pockets of incredible inspiration that you have to look at the intersection of different ideas to define. That was very difficult, and involved pushing and pulling until you found that right narrative.
I think where most people get confused when I talk about narrative to them, is that it’s not like that narrative needs to be legible in the result. The fact that the original Nobu was based on Japanese landscape and involved Peruvian street foods and Japanese food in terms of color, or that there was a sense of ritual that was at the center of it, doesn’t need to be legible. It just gives you the foundation.
SB: Yeah, it just is.
DR: It just is.
DR: By the way, this is something many people doing restaurants will not acknowledge: Nothing makes the design look better than really great food.
SB: [Laughs] Well, on the subject of hospitality, I wanted to connect this to the workspace, because, as you mentioned, you’ve designed several Nobus, you designed the Equinox Hotel at Hudson Yards in New York that just opened, the Virgin Hotel in Chicago, The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, the master plan and renovation of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai. Many, many projects. In terms of taking learnings from those and bringing them into your workspace projects—which have included the Warner Music office, WME-IMG, NeueHouse—where’s the correlation, or the translation, the conversation between the two?
DR: Well, I think there’s so many interesting layers to studying hospitality. One unexpected thing is, if you think about a restaurant, or an environment, or a hotel that has a sense of welcome, that morphs and changes throughout the day. The JetBlue terminal at JFK that we worked on has a very different sense of welcoming [depending on] if you’re leaving the city or arriving into the city. So we try to look at how that might be layered and how that applies to, say, Union Square Cafe, or a restaurant you might be familiar with, Nobu Downtown… It’s really a choreographed series of spaces.
If you’re the first ten people, [or] the first two people that come and do a restaurant, the sense of hospitality would be different because you’re entering an empty restaurant. So I think choreography is one of the key ways to create an evolving sense of hospitality.
Another thing I’ve discovered in the workspace—and a lot of it grows out of the work we’re doing with Knoll; we did an extensive line of products, and we’re now extending that and working with them—is [that] so much of what happens that’s meaningful in a workspace is what happens in between doing other things, on the way to doing other things. It’s not the planned meetings or the individual workstations.
SB: Yeah. That’s why you called the [Knoll] series “Unscripted,” I’m guessing.
DR: That’s right. That’s right, and it’s all light enough to move. There’s a clear hospitality underpinning to being able to reconfigure the room. Working hospitality has been an incredible teacher for me about lighting. What works during the day, what works at night, what creates enough focus to feel like you’re got an intimate workspace but you’re connected to other people. I also think as the workspace has evolved, more and more you don’t need to be “at work” to do your work. So you’re not coming to work, you’re not getting the Mad Men cubicle, you’re not necessarily getting the big huge swively chair. So you’re coming for other things.
A lot of the things I’m interested happen to be on wheels, whether it’s small things or big things. I think drink carts are the beginning of an evolution we’re going to see in breaking down the scale of restaurants. At NeueHouse, my favorite part of the food and beverage isn’t the café; it’s those carts that go around.
SB: Yeah. Which connects so much to your theater work. But this idea of movement, adaptability, transformation… You, of course, had early exposure to theater, which has had a long impact on your work. You’ve done set designs for Lucky Guy, Kinky Boots, Hairspray, Rocky Horror Picture Show. You’ve designed theaters, themselves.
DR: And then I’ve done sets in the theaters I’ve designed, and when you do that, you can’t come in and go, “Boy, this theater is crap, who designed that?” You’ve got to be nice to the theater.
SB: [Laughs] Well, how does all that work on Broadway—and off-Broadway—inform how you think about the workspace?
DR: Well, it’s deepened my belief that in the workspace, one of the goals is to put a disproportionate amount of effort and time into those things that people share. The Knoll “Unscripted” is about thirty products. The first product—the very first thing we presented to them—is a freestanding wall system that has a series of sliding screens, so it can be the wall you sketch on and you create on or present on. It grew out of an experience I observed designing McCann Erickson’s headquarters, where we sat in on a presentation that they were [showing] to a client.
My observation was [that] the work they developed—and the working on it—was so much more interesting than the final product. I think process is so much more interesting, in many cases, than the final product. In [the] workspace, we try to double down on those things that are shared and that create a sense of process. This wall system became one of the keys to a whole line of products that are overtly like a proscenium. In the theater, when the curtain goes up, you find out new rules about whatever story’s being told. I think workspace works that way, too, and one of the things transitions and portals provide, a sense of movement and sequence.
I also think one of the things we were able to do at NeueHouse and at Warner Music and at WME—three examples—is the heart of those bases, actually, at William Morris it’s called “The Heart.” It has an open kitchen that can be used when they have visiting chefs or it can be used for a staff meal. It can be subdivided. There’s a flexible heart at the center of it that, in some ways, is engaging and like [what] a hearth provides in a home. It attracts that energy. The same thing at NeueHouse, with the stairs [for sitting or meeting, or as audience seats during talks and performances] and the light fixtures that lower at night—that let you know there’s a change in the day.
SB: Yeah. I’m curious because you’re designing so much for process, really. You’re creating products that are fixed or maybe on wheels and movable, but at the end of the day, it’s about facilitating process. Obviously, sometimes that must turn out differently than the designer expects. I’m curious if there’s ever been a moment in NeueHouse or some of your projects where something maybe turned out differently than you thought, positively or negatively.
DR: Yeah. Well, there’s always those things. What’s really incredible is when a client gives you the opportunity to have a relationship, and it’s not just transactional, so there’s a chance to grow over time and learn and understand.
I’ll give you another great theater example: A very, very smart theater director named Jack O’Brien, and Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed Hairspray—which was my second Broadway show—we went out of town in Seattle, and there was no set for the end of the play, because they said, “Why don’t we see what the play is before we create the set?” Which is something I’d never thought about, which is: Don’t do all the designing until you know what the purpose is.
Warner Music doesn’t resemble at all what we started out doing. Part of what we had to recognize is [that], in order for these individual cultures to be individual, they had to generate some of the work. So we had to leave unfinished spaces. I think “unfinished” is a really beautiful thing that a lot of people are afraid of, that then let’s you finish—
SB: Adapt to change or … yeah.
SB: I like that.
DR: Then I’ve had places I go back to where you go, “Well, what the hell are these people doing?” But it’s their place then.
SB: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I think the idea of a workspace as a blank canvas is a really nice one. Even if much of the space is activated and busy, to leave a corner, or a pocket, or…
DR: Also, things that create a sense of local intimacy. We just did a line of furniture for Benchmark, out of London, and they [have] the most beautiful craftsmanship you can imagine. There’s a sofa loveseat with a high wood back, that when they’re back to back, performs one of the things we’re seeing office spaces need more and more, which is offline place to have a conversation without a lot of distractions, that isn’t a cubicle. So something in between furniture and a wall.
SB: I like that. Connected to that, I wanted to talk about co-working, open office, and design’s ability to get people to interact, to connect, which is such a focal point of your work. What are your thoughts on co-working in general?
DR: What’s most interesting about it is the variety of cultural languages. I think there was a period in which co-working had a sort of frat house, beanbag chair vernacular, which, fortunately, seems to be waning. But I think it accommodates so many different cultures. One of the things about co-working I find most intriguing is how that changes throughout the day. We think about what would be the shared spaces—whether it’s a kitchenette, or a conference room, or desks—that are changeable.
I also, personally, feel like there’s a tendency to think flexibility means neutrality, which I don’t think it does. I think abdicating any sense of… There is no point of view. You can’t take a design that’s so neutralized that it has no point of view. So I think having some personality that expresses what the culture of that place is, that’s changeable, is the future of co-working. Also, I think there have to be attractors that make it worth leaving home, if you can do your work at home.
We were working on a project in Las Vegas, a nightclub, and everyone wanted a cabana and everyone wanted a private table, and one of the owners said, “Well, if they wanted to be that private, they would just stay in their room.” You’re coming out, actually, for some connections. So, in co-working, that’s one of the interesting challenges: How do you create the conditions for enough privacy to do your work, be able to connect with different people, and then congregate?
SB: Yeah. In terms of where you see all this going, what are some trends or bold ideas you have?
DR: Bold ideas, God. I think turbocharging variety. Part of that is making it more porous. You’re already seeing hotels that, by definition and how they’re laid out, become workspaces. The lobby at the Ace Hotel [in New York City] is an example lots of people point to. But I think variety and allowing other people in and out using co-working as a way to launch products, test products: instead of having one embedded food partner, bring multiple food partners in. Actually develop a strategy for desks and spaces that can open up in the evening and create a bigger entertaining space. Spaces that breathe and have the variety of the way we want to live our lives—it feels like a big idea that’s already on its way to happening.
SB: Is there something you’ve always wanted to do in workspace design that you have yet to do, or something that you feel would be the kind of thing that you would dream of doing, I suppose?
DR: Yeah, I don’t know that I want to actually impose this on the world necessarily, but one of the things that’s intriguing to me is using the ceiling more and thinking about theatrical rigging, and having a very open space. What’s changeable is things that come up and down. As I mentioned, at NeueHouse, the light fixtures come up and down on manual counter rigs. I think fly lofts and theater spaces… Whenever I’m with a group of architects touring a theater, the fly loft is the most surprising place because it’s pure potential. So I’ve always wanted to create an office space where, like in Get Smart and “the cone of silence”—for anyone over 55 years old—the idea that you can actually use that ceiling space to have multiple worlds nest and come down. Walls, conference rooms, welcome centers…
SB: Yeah. It’s funny, the ceiling tends to be one of these things we forget, and lighting, too. It’s actually usually a good thing when you forget the lighting.
DR: Ceiling is often ignored. We did the children’s hospital at Montefiore [Medical Center, in the Bronx], [which] opened in 2002, and spent several years studying children’s hospitals. One of the things we discovered is [that] the ceiling is the surface the kids look at the most, because most of the time they’re horizontal, and it’s a totally unexplored surface in terms of wayfinding. But the more I think about it, I think [of] an office space as black-box theater, so that the play of the workspace evolves throughout the day. You’d need to have some tech staff there, but that would be awesome, too. Everyone has tech staff anyway, but instead of just deciphering how to make your phone work, they could transform the space.
SB: This is great. Thanks, David. Thanks for coming in today.
DR: Thank you.