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David Rockwell, the New York architect and designer, describes Dubai as "an incredible city of superlatives", a list he has helped expand considerably.
Andrew Henderson Staff Photographer
David Rockwell, the New York architect and designer, describes Dubai as 'an incredible city of superlatives', a list he has helped expand considerably.

Rockwell's stages of design

David Rockwell, the New York architect and designer, describes Dubai as "an incredible city of superlatives".

David Rockwell, the New York architect and designer, describes Dubai as "an incredible city of superlatives". He has helped add to the list of superlatives. His first project was to design the Nobu restaurant at the Palm Atlantis, where he created a surreal environment reflecting the spectacle of the hotel and its man-made Palm Jumeirah island home. "One of the most important aspects of the design was choreography: how the guests would enter, how they would move through the space," Mr Rockwell says.

"We envisioned the guests coming in from the beautiful Middle East beachside, or the other-wordly landscape of Atlantis. We wanted them to have a smooth transition into our space, while also introducing them to a totally new and sensuous experience." So Mr Rockwell crafted a marine environment where enormous, hand-woven plant fibre panels line the restaurant walls and ceilings to evoke a setting under an ocean wave.

Dubai is appealing for designers, he suggests, because in many ways it is a blank slate. "You look at Dubai, you think of all the towers," Mr Rockwell says. "But down on the ground ? where are the parks? Where are the communal spaces? It's not conceived of from a pedestrian point of view. As a designer, that's an opportunity." Since Nobu's opening, his Middle East portfolio has expanded with another Nobu restaurant, this time in Doha, and an Aloft Hotel in Abu Dhabi, prompting him to open a Dubai office.

On a recent visit, Mr Rockwell is obviously exhausted. (He asks the photographer to use settings that would best mask his fatigue.) Still, the affable designer becomes enthusiastic as he describes a portfolio spanning 25 years. As well as restaurant commissions, his work has taken him from Broadway (the stage production of Hairspray) to Hollywood (the set of this year's Academy Awards). The Oscars was a particular design challenge: how to make a TV programme watched by hundreds of millions of viewers across the globe look like an intimate gathering of film enthusiasts?

Mr Rockwell's solution was to scrap what he saw as the impersonal layout of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles that he had designed nine years earlier in favour of a setting more like a small night club. "It's no longer unique to see a close-up picture of a movie star. Everyone sees them," he says. "What's unique is if you can invite the audience on TV to participate and not just observe." His interest in design was inspired by his mother, a vaudeville dancer and choreographer. She had long given up her dancing career by the time David, the youngest of her five sons, was born. Instead, she set up a theatre group in the New Jersey shore community where the family lived.

Mr Rockwell says that even as a child he was struck by the stark contrast between the private nature of suburban life and the public space of the community theatre. "There was very little stuff happening publicly except this community theatre," he says. "I think I was kind of hypnotised by everyone coming together and creating this thing." Then, when he was an adolescent, the family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico. "It was almost like taking that suburb and turning it inside out. The public realm was incredible: market places, bull rings, music squares with mariachis ?"

Growing up in Mexico introduced him to an important distinction in design that he uses in his practice: constructing buildings versus creating spaces. "What I remember about it isn't so much the buildings. You know, as architects we tend to be focused on the fixed building, but what I remember about the experience in Mexico was the rituals and the experiences that linked the buildings. "I remember the sense of dance and the sense of performance. Clearly my interest in colour and light came from those early days in Mexico because the light is so intense."

Mr Rockwell returned to the US to study architecture at Syracuse University in New York but it was a Broadway production of Dracula that gave him the idea of combining architecture and theatre. "It blew me away and the next day - I was young and didn't know better - I called up the lighting director and said I'd like to come and work for you for two weeks for free, and if it works out I want to stay. And I did."

His big break came in 1983 when he designed a small Japanese restaurant in New York called Sushi Zen. He had little space and a tight budget, but he focused on one concept: a bar in the shape of a lightning bolt. "This project was an early example of my longtime focus on creating places where people can best connect and gather," he says. "And that was the reason for creating the jagged bar, as opposed to one long bar where you can only socialise with and see the people sitting directly next to you."

With that success, he established his own firm, The Rockwell Group, in 1984. A decade later, Mr Rockwell would cement his relationship with Nobu and go on to design projects as diverse as Cirque du Soleil and the viewing platforms at the September 11 Ground Zero site in lower Manhattan. He emphasises that all his projects are about bringing people together socially. "I realised that there was something about creating places that allow a celebration and celebrate a moment that interests me, and I was lucky enough to build a successful practice around that," Mr Rockwell says. "We're fortunate as a firm that we're not focused just on one industry and there's clearly globally less money to build projects," he says, pointing out that some of the greatest projects, such as the Rockefeller Center in New York, were created at the height of economic turmoil.

"Dubai wanted to be the biggest and the brightest. That can't go on forever." But like New York in earlier times of financial fallout, he believes Dubai will find a way to proceed with its often grand ideas. "I think there's an interesting opportunity in Dubai." rbundhun@thenational.ae

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