How David Rockwell Reinvented The Theater For The TED Era

Rockwell’s bespoke pop-up theater, a timber structure with customized seating that fosters an intimate connection between audience and speaker, debuts at TED2014 in Vancouver.



Arguably, attending TED’s annual conference is great for the mind, but hard on the butt. The annual conference devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”–features five days of 18-minute inspirational speeches from the likes of world thought leaders, philosophers, writers, artists, designers, and more. Which means, you do a lot of sitting. For TED2014, which launches this week in Vancouver, the 30-year-old organization tried something completely new: TED built its own theater, a temporary, 20,000-square-foot semi-circular space made of locally forested timber and outfitted with a rainbow of modified office furniture.

The custom, pop-up theater created by renown New York architect David Rockwell marks an unprecedented foray into designing around the unique experience that is TED, taking into account the needs, desires, and comforts necessary to create the intimate experience TED promises for both speaker and audience. Most theaters are designed for viewing a two-hour play or a musical performance, an experience that differs vastly from listening to speaker after speaker for days at a time, and one that requires a host of different design considerations.

In December 2012, TED curator Chris Anderson called Rockwell, a longtime TED attendee and speaker. That month, the team had decided to move the West Coast conference from its previous location in Long Beach, California, to a convention center right off Vancouver’s picturesque Burrard Inlet. It would be the first time TED’s flagship conference would be held outside the U.S. Anderson, who had long dreamed of building a custom theater, saw it as the perfect opportunity. “We had this beautiful meeting space by the water, with the mountains, but no theater,” he says. “So there you go.”

“Chris wanted to know, did I think we could design a performance space?” Rockwell recalls. “Could we create a way for TED to live in this beautiful space in Vancouver?”

In many ways, this is a question the architect had been preparing for since his first TED Talk back in the late ’90s, which was about theater. He’s written an entire book on public performance. In addition to his work designing hotels, restaurants, and children’s hospitals, his firm has worked on everything from sets for the Broadway productions of Kinky Boots and Hairspray and the film Team America: World Police to Hollywood’s Dolby Theater, where the Oscars are held.


“I refer to it as my thesis project,” he says of the TED2014 theater. “Whatever it is we’ve been working on as a studio, it’s around the idea of communal engagement.” Rockwell traveled to Vancouver to look at the space with the TED team, sketching the first plans on a restaurant napkin. “Like most great things, it was slightly terrifying, but kind of the perfect intersection of what I’ve been thinking about for 30 years,” he says. Rockwell is interested in exploring why, in an age when we can be connected through technology anywhere and at any time, we still crave a live experience. Harnessing the idea that the experience of TED is as much about the audience as it is the speaker, he designed a 20,000-square-foot temporary theater that can be assembled within the convention center’s 40,000-square-foot ballroom, one that he says is “very much bespoke around [TED’s] DNA.”

In the past, TED has been held in venues designed for performances largely unrelated to what TED does. The experience of watching a two-hour play or listening to an hour-long sermon is completely different than cycling in and out of the same theater listening to a slew of TED Talks over a period of almost a week. “TED Talks are trying to tap into a more ancient form of human gathering,” Anderson says. “It goes back to the campfire. It’s a very theatrical, intimate, powerful experience.”

It’s also very social. People want to chat, meet their neighbors and share ideas in between talks. Some people need to blog about the event, or check their email, without disturbing those around them. And it’s exclusive: This year’s attendees have been pared down from 1,400 people to 1,200, each one of whom has paid thousands of dollars (and gone through a thorough application process) for a ticket to the TED community. It was vital that the theater’s design give the speakers–some of the world’s greatest thinkers–the opportunity to exchange ideas. “The biggest single thing is the fact that the audience [members] are brought into this much more than ever before,” Anderson says of the theater. “They are as much the show as the speaker. They’re much more visible to each other, the way this is designed.” Seating was of the utmost importance.

The bowl of the theater is steeply raked to ensure that in a room of 1,200, the farthest distance from the speaker standing on TED’s emblematic red-carpeted stage is a mere 80 feet, bringing a greater degree of intimacy to the event. For contrast, Hollywood’s Ford Amphitheater is advertised as intimate with a 96-foot distance from the farthest seat to the stage. The farthest seat at last year’s TED conference was 122 feet from the stage. “It’s a 180-degree space where the audience–and their reaction and their celebration and their interaction and their connection” are visible, Rockwell explains. By helping the speaker better see and feel the audience’s reactions, this immediacy will also help create more dynamic filmed versions of the talks, which extend speakers’ reach far and beyond the actual conference (the online library of talks is viewed 1.9 million times a day).

The seating itself was designed by Steelcase, an office furniture company that has provided TED with furniture for its lounge and simulcast spaces at conferences in the past. Steelcase provided eight lines of furniture to populate the theater and in some cases altered its existing office products–like Gesture, a chair specifically molded around how we use technology–to fit in the context of a theater. The company also designed custom ringside seating exclusively for the theater.


“All the things that are bad about a theater–everybody in a row, you have to crawl over people, all the seats are the same, the viewing may not be the greatest from different angles–here’s an opportunity with a blank sheet of paper,” Mark Greiner, Steelcase’s chief experience officer, tells Co.Design. With the different lounge spaces created by arranging groups of seats, sofas, and stools, the designers have created a plethora of choices for the audience to choose from each time they enter the theater after a break.

There’s the aforementioned ringside seating, rows of semi-circular benches that sit close to the stage, providing footrests in case people want to lean back to see the speaker. There are sofas in case people want to sit together, individual seats for those who don’t want to curl up on a couch, seats tucked into a cutout of the stage for folks who want to get really close, and a bar at the very back of the theater, near the top, where people can use their laptops and phones standing or perched on stools, without casting bright, distracting light on their neighbors. The lounges, combinations of seats and sofas, create a “community within a community,” according to Rockwell.

However, the notion of building a theater just for TED2014 came with a catch: It had to be temporary, and portable. The convention center has other events scheduled before and after TED’s conference, so the theater needed to be assembled quickly, and disassembled even more quickly. Furthermore, the ballroom’s doors are only 12 feet wide and any pieces of the theater had to fit through that space.

A total of 600 modular boxes were built in a warehouse in Vancouver, then shipped over to the site, where crews worked by an hour-by-hour deployment plan around the clock to get the structure ready in a mere four-and-a-half days. The timber boxes had to be made strong enough to give the theater structural stability, but light and small enough for workers to move them around. The theater’s furniture, shipped from Steelcase in nice large trailers, was installed in only 12 hours. The whole thing will be packed up and shipped out again after the conference ends, to be stored until next year, this time with only two-and-a-half days to do it.

“It’s really totally unprecedented,” Rockwell says. “Nothing like this has really ever been done before.”

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut