Creating Spaces

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In David Rockwell's world, every room has room for more. For a restaurant he's currently designing in Japan, for example, he's devising a way to overarch some of the seating areas with waterfalls, onto which will be projected holographic fish that people could try to grab as they eat. It's as if he fears that eating and shopping-even gambling-are not fun enough. They have to be encased in color, movement, texture, visual bons mots. People have to be distracted while dining out, or like little children they'll get bored and start banging the cutlery.

Rockwell, 46, is called, sometimes dismissively, an entertainment architect. He made his name with the fizzy-then-fizzled Planet Hollywood restaurants and has cemented it with the sets for the new Broadway musical Hairspray. But his peculiar talent is taking the notion of entertainment to new places, not just restaurants and sports stadiums but also malls and hotels and even hospitals. The spaces he designs are intended to elicit an emotional response; they're spectacular, unexpected, piquant.

In many ways Rockwell is the anti-architect. Not for him the clinical cool so often associated with designers. He's warm and avuncular, the kind of guy who welcomes dogs and children in the office. He doesn't even look intimidating: Barry Manilow hair, jeans unfashionably cut and those half-shoes, half-sneakers by Merrell. He's solicitous and courteous, and after he invites you to the theater he writes to thank you for coming. His forthcoming book, Pleasure, lists about 120 built projects, which is a very high number for a 46-year-old, but if, say, the job of designing hotels was given to people on the basis of how hospitable they were, Rockwell would have built entire chains by now.

Like Norman Rockwell (no relation), this Rockwell is in the business of narrative, craftsmanship and delivering prolific amounts of work that connect viscerally with the masses and are roundly ignored by the academy. While he's capable of making the sensuous and almost cozy little bays of Philadelphia's Pod restaurant, his pièce de ràsistance, the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, is pure spectacle. "What drives us is invention," he says of his firm. "We're specifically looking for something new."

Ten of the Rockwell Group's 90 employees (Rockwell calls them "collaborators") are charged with finding unusual materials to build with. And in the casino he had the means to use every crayon in the box. He wove strips of birch bark together for some of the walls, encased turkey feathers and dried corn husks in glass for others. The lobby is delineated by trees made of cedar, old copper joints and beads, and is punctuated by a 17-m indoor waterfall. Gamblers try their luck in the glow of Wombi Rock, a mountain made of onyx and alabaster fused onto glass, which houses a restaurant, bar and lounge. And did we mention the world's biggest working planetarium dome?

"This project has more dazzling surfaces per square foot than any I've ever done," Rockwell says, although much of the territory was familiar ground to him. Trees are a recurring theme in Rockwell's work, as is every type of glass. (He collects kaleidoscopes.) He has fallen particularly hard for backlit glass, which he uses throughout the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. He likes to use familiar materials in new, more glamorous ways, weaving wood or using topiary hedges as interior walls.

He's also very fond of themes. He sometimes talks in terms of "concepting" a project rather than designing it. In his first ground-up project (one for which he did the building as well as the interiors), the Chambers Hotel in New York City, he found art installations by up-and-coming artists for each room. Theming his projects also allows him room for witty variation. The colors of Mexico are evoked with vivid glass tiles in Rosa Mexicano on New York City's West Side. But the country's colorfulness is also alluded to by dozens of little white figurines doing a big Acapulco-style dive down a water-washed blue wall. On the other hand, each project is at the mercy of its theme. If Detroit Tigers fans think the idea of giant tiger statues and huge scratch marks on the columns at the Tigers' Comerica Park is insufficiently macho, they're out of luck.

Rockwell's view that acts of commerce should have a strong dose of wonder is catching on elsewhere, particularly among retailers. Stores are no longer big rooms in which to make purchases. They're experiences, sites for little emotional excursions whose purpose is to hunt-and-gather but also to feel good about what is gathered. The new Apple Computer stores, designed by Gensler, a firm far more conservative than Rockwell's, attempt this with nooks for different computing activities, including a Genius Bar, where geeks can gather and ask questions of an expert. The Toys "R" Us in New York City's Times Square, also by Gensler, is similarly divided into zones that let children act out their fantasies: Barbie merchandise is displayed in a life-size dream house, and an animatronic T. rex guards the dinosaur toys. One New York City Prada store, designed by the austerely hip Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is more than half amusement arcade, with everything from glass dressing rooms that become opaque when locked to a fold-out stage for performances and movie screenings. Theme-park shopping isn't just for Disney World.

Architectural purists dismiss Rockwell's creations as stagecraft. And there is a sense that the attention he's getting for Hairspray is appropriate because his work has always been set building, not creating a fully functioning environment. But Rockwell doesn't disavow his affection for theater. His mother was a choreographer-some of his happiest memories are of community theater with his four older brothers in Deal, New Jersey. After studying architecture at Syracuse University and the Architectural Association in London, he worked for a lighting designer before pursuing architecture proper. "Theater is an interesting laboratory for what we're doing as architects," he says of his firm. "We love to do buildings that are permanent as much as the next person, but I think that permanence can be stifling. Creating something that is genuinely delightful and engaging and temporary is as valid a pursuit."

Even if Rockwell's designs never enter the architectural canon, he has fans in unusual places. He has collaborated with Diller + Scofidio, the most cerebral, academic architectural studio of the moment, by building a viewing platform at ground zero in New York City. Their next collaboration could be an airport-Rockwell's itching to design one. He just discovered that his proposal for the new Singapore airport won't fly. It had aquariums at the curb to remind people of sea level and a huge indoor aviary at the departure gate to evoke the wonder of flight.

Even when designing the types of buildings he has done so many times before, he's looking for new stuff with which to build them. "It's exciting not to know all the answers before you start," he says. In the tentatively named Art Hotel in London, he's trying to build a glass flue above the fireplace, and glass trees. He would like to do a blow-up theatrical set, where high-pressure pumps inflate and deflate the set pieces as needed.

In that way, Rockwell is like us. He understands our desire for the Next Thing, for something we haven't seen or done before. He shares our longing to have each experience be just a little bit bigger and more resonant than the last-our need to look at holographic fish while we eat sushi. And he knows our attention span is short, because his is too. What makes Rockwell different from other designers is that instead of being dismayed by our growing collective add, he embraces it. One of the reasons he found designing the sets of Hairspray gratifying, he says, is that "in architecture, you don't get 1,300 people getting to their feet and telling you how they feel about your work every night."