Born in Chicago in 1956, architect David Rockwell today heads the Rockwell Group, a Manhattan-based full-service design company with over 160 staff members. Combining elements of theatre and architecture with an impeccable sense of design and style, Rockwell's projects range from the new theatre for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in LA to the renovation of Radio City Music Hall, interiors on the Disney Cruise ships, the Mohegan Sun Casino, the Cirque du Soleil theatre in Orlando, and the Loew's Theatre at E-Walk in Manhattan.

David and the Rockwell Group have also created delicious interiors for a wide variety of restaurants, including Nobu, Vong, Ruby Foo's, and Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in New York City. Rockwell spoke with contributing editor Ellen Lampert-Greaux.

Ellen Lampert-Greaux: When did you decide to become an architect?

David Rockwell: When I was living in Mexico. I loved the marketplaces and started to think about public space-making. It seemed like a great way to combine my love of spaces and the theatre, so I gave it shot. I knew I wanted to come back and be near New York.

ELG: Did you invent the concept of entertainment architecture?

Rockwell: I think entertainment architecture was invented back before the Roman Coliseum. I didn't realize when we started talking about entertainment architecture eight or nine years ago that it would become something firms would set up marketing divisions to go after. It's not a marketing decision on my part, it's just what I love doing. I've been really fortunate that my love, my interests, and my passion coincide with a market demand.

I don't think we invented anything; maybe we popularized something. I look at the way our firm is set up. It's like an old-fashioned studio with artists, painters, lighting designers, modelmakers, writers, architects, interior designers, and we tackle everything from designing a lighting fixture to designing a football stadium to doing an exhibit for a museum.

ELG: How do you select your projects?

Rockwell: Well, we have certain criteria. One is that someone in the office, at a senior level, has to be extremely passionate about doing the project. So if it doesn't pass that test, it's not going to work. Another criteria is that it takes us into a new area or we feel that the project itself offers a unique opportunity. That could be working with a great chef, it could be developing a movie theatre in a great location, it could be the wine store that we did for these two terrific sommeliers. Since we are committed to a collaborative process, we need the client who wants to do that too.

ELG: What are the hottest projects in the office right now, the ones you are the most passionate about?

Rockwell: One great project is Loew's on 42nd Street. It has this 80'-tall arch and a big lobby looking out toward 42nd Street like a glowing proscenium arch with an 80'-tall red drape. I think it's going to be amazing. Our decision was to have Loew's stand out by having the building be a sign. I think it harkens back to the day when going to the movies was as much about the environment. This is really inspired by that.

ELG: What about Disney's Cirque du Soleil theatre? You have described it as a punctuation mark at the end of a busy street.

Rockwell: The way we got involved is that Disney had hired us to help master-plan Downtown Disney and we got involved in generating the overall plan. There needed to be a visual landmark to help orient people, so when Cirque du Soleil presented itself, we were very excited about that. We met with Guy Laliberte [of Cirque du Soleil] and Patrick Berge [of Sceno Plus]. They hired us based on the work we were doing for the master plan, and some of our other work that they had seen. We had never done a big, ground-up theatre, but we had a lot of commitment to the project, a lot of passion, and a lot of thoughts about it.

ELG: Why did this project appeal to you so much?

Rockwell: It's really to the point of what interests me, it's not just repeating ourselves. We're doing a project for the Bronx Zoo, and that's exciting because we have never done that. Cirque du Soleil was a thrill because we'd never done that. Problem-solving, looking at a problem differently, using architecture as a way to take the client's dreams and goals and realize them, is what's exciting for us. That's what we did with Cirque du Soleil. We spent a lot of time talking to Michel Crete [Cirque's scenic designer], and Guy and Patrick, to understand Cirque's culture. This was an important building for them. They had never done a freestanding, ground-up building, so this was going to be a three-dimensional representation of their culture. So understanding their roots, understanding what statement they wanted to make, was all part of that. And working with Disney, of course, made it all more complex.

ELG: Can you describe this theatre?

Rockwell: I think it has the energy of a structure that's in between being a permanent building and a temporary building. And there's something about the energy of the tent and the roots of Cirque du Soleil as a touring company that we didn't want to design out of this building. So the idea is a white castle with turrets, that has this tent that flows out around it and invites people in, like a big skirt. I guess that's the best way to describe it. Also, I was fascinated by images of old circus tents and the way kids would peek in underneath them. This building invites you to do that by putting its grand stair underneath that tent. It embraces a lot of the ideas of Cirque du Soleil, of transformation, of seduction.

ELG: Did you collaborate with Cirque du Soleil on the interiors as well?

Rockwell: Yes, this is a building that in terms of its form was generated from the inside out. We worked closely with Michel (Crete) and Patrick (Berge) to get the inside layout just right and then build the building out from there.

ELG: What about the many restaurants you have designed?

Rockwell: I never finished answering your question about hot projects...there's the Academy Awards theatre, a very, very exciting project for us. The new football stadium for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I'm a great football fan and this is urban spectacle on the ultimate level, isn't it? These stadiums are such great opportunities and I really think there's a lot we can contribute to making the entire experience more exciting--the pre-game, the post-game. It's not just about a big concrete building.

ELG: What about the Academy Awards theatre?

Rockwell: It's going to be incredible. My feeling about what makes a theatre powerful is that it's not just the one-on-one relationship of the audience to the actor, but it's the audience to the audience, the schmoozing. You go to the Paris Opera House and that lobby, the stairs, those boxes, it's all about the excitement of spectacle in addition to what's happening onstage. The Academy Awards theatre embraces all of those ideas. It has a cast-glass curtain that's about 70' tall on the front. It's in the shape of a curtain, but it's 3" cast glass, and you enter behind that into a lobby with a wall made entirely of glass beads. It's all about refraction and light.

ELG: When does it open?

Rockwell: In March 2002 for the Academy Awards. There's also Radio City Music Hall, one of the great buildings in the world. We're working on the renovation with architect Hugh Hardy to bring it back to its former glory.

ELG: Restaurants: you've done a lot of them. What defines good restaurant design?

Rockwell: Good restaurant design is where the environment supports and is integrated into the chef's or owner's vision and supports that. So you could have a really, really beautiful restaurant that has great services but it's not a good restaurant design in my opinion because it doesn't understand all of the pieces. The food, the service, and the design need to come from the same point of view, so our job initially is a lot of research understanding what the goals of the project are. I think restaurants have an interesting function, they're very social places. They're like mini-vacations where you spend an hour or two. The design helps determine if that is an intimate experience, an extroverted experience, what's the sound level, how you set it up for looking at other people.

ELG: Are you drawn to other areas, such as theatre or film design?

Rockwell: Yes, we're actually speaking to several directors and working on proposals for theatre projects. One of the things I spend a lot of time doing here is setting up an environment in which everyone can be creative, and that really requires some focus. We recently had a two-day retreat where we focused on the idea of creativity. So we do a lot to keep people thinking and looking.

ELG: What are your long-range plans?

Rockwell: We've pretty much done the things we set out to do, so we're redefining our goals. One of the things I really believe is that entertainment is not something that should be relegated to certain types of architecture. We're doing a children's hospital, and I think the idea of uplifting, immersive environments that communicate with the guest or the participant is relevant for all types of architecture.

ELG: What about collaboration with other designers and architects?

Rockwell: It's one of the things we do an incredible amount of. We worked with Beyer Blinder Belle on the lower concourse of Grand Central Station, Hugh Hardy on Radio City Music Hall, we collaborated with Todd Oldham on a hotel in Dallas. So I strongly believe in not believing your own baloney; you need to get people in to challenge you. It gives you another totally different point of view. And lighting designers, artists, artisans--we want someone who is very committed, creative, and willing to look at out-of-the-box solutions. We want people who believe in having fun and can make a real difference. We don't want people who think they know the solution before they talk to us.

ELG: Do you have favorite projects?

Rockwell: I love driving by Cirque du Soleil in Orlando and seeing it lit up at night and knowing we were part of that. I love going into Ruby Foo's and walking up those stairs. I love the light fixtures that Paul Gregory developed for us at Vong. I love walking into Next Door Nobu and seeing the seaweed walls shimmer, watching people look at that. I guess it goes back to the analogy in Mexico, of being in public spaces.

ELG: Does the word 'themed' apply to your work?

Rockwell: I'm not sure that 'themed' is really a design term, as much as it has become a marketing term. I think what themed can represent at its best is architecture and design that is narrative and tells a story and emotionally takes you from one place to another. What themed can also mean is a two-dimensional application to something. But the whole idea that you can design something and then stick something else onto it to make it interesting is the opposite of what we do.