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David Rockwell’s Secret To Creativity? Asking “What If”

David Rockwell’s exuberant designs have made him the go-to architect for everything from playgrounds to hotels. Here, a peek at his process.

Over the course of his 30-year career, architect David Rockwell has brought a characteristically exuberant approach to everything from playgrounds to the Oscars. He has designed a theater for the TED era, luxury prefab houses, and an airport terminal that could pass for a theme park. Few architects bring such creative chutzpah to such a diverse portfolio.

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In his latest monograph (his first, Pleasure, came out in 2002) Rockwell explores the design thinking that led to some of his most notable commissions of the last dozen years or so. The influence of his experience in creating ephemeral experiences like dining or breezing through a hotel lobby–forged in his very first solo commission, a sushi restaurant in New York–is evident even in seemingly unrelated commissions like an airport terminal or an office space.

Nobu Caesars PalaceEric Laignel

“I found if you look in the rearview mirror and look at the work, there are certain ideas that weave it together,” Rockwell says, “and certain kinds of ideas that have been explored in multiple forms but continue to be significant to us.” The central question the firm asks on any project, he says, is “what if?”–a query that opens up what could be cut-and-dry design projects (say, the firm’s umpteenth collaboration with chef Nobu Matsuhisa) to unexpected possibilities, like “what if a restaurant became a hotel?”

“I’m interested in hybrids–what happens when you sort of have various things rub up against each other and infiltrate each other?” he explains. “I think this is a time where barriers between what a hotel is, what an office is, what a restaurant is, what a cultural event is, those are all merging.”

W Paris Opera
Courtesy of Starwood Hotels and Resorts

For example, “hospitality isn’t only applicable to restaurants,” he says. “It’s a kind of building a block that we’re able to use in other work that we do.” He cites NeueHouse, the hip New York coworking space that’s been described as more private club than office, where the interior furnishings can be adjusted between daytime work sessions and evening events, or even the JetBlue terminal at JFK airport, where bleacher-like seating takes center stage or create a kind of open piazza with a 360-degree view of the airport’s culinary offerings.

Rockwell attributes his earliest interest in how design can connect people as a way of coping with upheaval in his life–from his father’s death when he was three years old to moving from Chicago to New Jersey when his mother remarried, to the family’s relocation to Guadalajara, Mexico in his early teens. “It was my way of dealing with transitions in life,” he explains.”I was always in the process of making some Rube Goldberg-ian construction that was about connecting people.” Whenever the family moved, he would set about finding a space where he would collect various doors and buckets and pieces of wood and wheels. “I was always making installations,” he says, “and I was always involving other people and friends and people in the immediate area to participate in that.”

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YotelNikolas Koenig

Rockwell’s foray into the business wasn’t exactly smooth, perhaps as you might expect from someone with such a freewheeling mantra. He had to borrow money from a friend to complete the interior design for a midtown Manhattan sushi restaurant, which became his first solo commission (the client ran out of money to pay him, though he says eventually they paid him back). When asked if there are particular lessons–design-related or otherwise–he’s learned from his three decades in architecture, Rockwell hesitates to dwell on the past. “I’m really not a looking back person,” he says, (despite having just completed a book, aptly titled “What If,” of his past accomplishments). Nevertheless, when he does come up with a pearl of wisdom, it all comes back to his idea of nurturing ephemeral experiences. “I guess one lesson I’ve learned–which I learned as a kid early on, losing my dad–is that nothing is forever,” he says. The transience of his life experiences has made him passionate about “creating places where you’re celebrating the moment.”

Right now, he’s immersed in the Chefs Club, a Manhattan eatery he’s designing that will feature an ever-changing lineup of chefs hosted by Food & Wine magazine. The “what if?” of the moment? “What happens if the chef can rotate in and out?” he asks. There’s “going to be several years of exploring that,” he says.

What If…? The Architecture and Design of David Rockwell comes out in late December, available from Metropolis books for $45.

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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

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