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Action theater by design

2 June 2008

Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The 1-ton chandelier looms above the Venetian's Phantom Theatre, falls from the ceiling and almost crashes into the audience during each performance of "Phantom, the Las Vegas Spectacular."

"It was incredibly difficult to produce on every level," David Rockwell says as he looks up at the $5 million creation. "The hardest part may have been to make it look effortless."

The 51-year-old visionary architect makes it look easy with his shock of brown hair and his Ivy League casual outfit. He speaks softly, eloquently and patiently even though he is pressed for time on a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas.

His fingerprints are all over town. He's designed more than a dozen restaurants, including Simon at the Palms and Dos Caminos at the Palazzo. He's one of the team of architects working on the $9.2 billion CityCenter project.

Rockwell also put the spectacular in the Vegas version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's legendary musical, which celebrates its second anniversary at the Venetian this month. He designed the chandelier, said to be one of the most sophisticated pieces of theatrical equipment in Las Vegas. That's saying a lot considering such complex productions as "Ka" at the MGM Grand, "O" at the Bellagio and "Le Reve" at Wynn Las Vegas.

No project is too big or too small for the New York architect — whether it's a casino or a chandelier.

"The criteria for me to become involved in a project is if it is something I am going to learn from," he says.

That's why he accepted director Hal Prince's offer to adapt Maria Bjornson's original design for "Phantom."

"It was one of the most brilliant pieces of set design ever in theater," Rockwell says. "I had no interest in reinventing another version of that. It was done so well."

But Prince wanted something a little different. He wanted the theater to be part of the show, and the chandelier was one of the main characters.

"How could I not jump at that?"

The result was the 16-foot wide and 12-foot tall chandelier with hand-hung crystals. Built by Fisher Technical Services, it's operated by a complex system of cables, pulleys and winches controlled by computer. It it is split into four levels, each with four cables and each cable with two winches. There are 16 tracks, each 50 feet long, that allow the chandelier to move and to create the effect of it coming apart.

Its plummet makes the audience part of the production, playing the role of an audience in an opera house.

Rockwell's philosophy seems to be: Life is theater, theater is life. He makes the audience part of his creations. Architecture is not simply something to be admired from afar, like a painting on a wall, but an experience to be enjoyed. That point of view permeates his works, whether they be restaurants, nightclubs or casinos.

"I think as human beings we want to be touched, astonished, engaged — and design can help do that," Rockwell says.

His vision was shaped by the experiences of his youth. Born in Chicago, he was raised in Deal, N.J., and Guadalajara, Mexico.

Rockwell's mother was a vaudeville dancer who later choreographed community theater productions on the Jersey Shore. He and his four older brothers were involved in various productions with their mother, and there is always something theatrical about his restaurants and other creations.

"What I always try and do is find a narrative," he says. "The link between theater and architecture for me is the script, the back story, and I just have to find it, the part that is better told visually. In architecture we try to abstract that back story."

When Rockwell was 10, his father decided to retire, pack up the family and move to Guadalajara.

"There, I found the world of public theater, of spectacles in marketplaces," Rockwell says. He also found vivid colors and bullrings. He learned to appreciate the relationship between people and their architectural environment.

He studied architecture at Syracuse University and took a year off to study lighting with Broadway lighting designer Roger Morgan. Rockwell was 25 when he designed his first restaurant as a freelance assignment.

"I needed to redesign and renovate this French restaurant in five weeks," Rockwell says. He drew on his theatrical background, brought in a team of off-off-Broadway set designers and met the deadline. The design was a hit, which led to more freelance assignments and eventually his own firm, which now employs more than 250 people.

"I have always enjoyed the relationship between physical space and theatrical ideas."

Rockwell's first assignment in Las Vegas was more than 15 years ago for Steve Wynn, designing the Samba Brazilian Steakhouse at the Mirage. His latest restaurant project is BLT Burger at the Mirage, set to open in July.

"BLT is an example of my looking for the back story, of finding the DNA in the design," Rockwell says.

When the owner told him he was going to make incredible hamburgers, Rockwell dug deeper and found that craftsmanship and freshness were important in the process of cooking.

"It set off a light bulb in my mind," Rockwell says. "Let's put the grill with the burgers out front, make it central to the restaurant. So I extended the grill made of beautiful glazed red brick tile. I turned the cooking into a ritual to be celebrated."

At Dos Caminos, he turned a difficult space into a series of linked spaces, warm and inviting, each with its own character.

"Everywhere you go there are inglenooks," he says. "In a place like this you want to find your own place, somewhere you can put your back against the wall."

The final room is an intimate space with a wall of candles. "With the candles, it feels like the room just goes on forever," he says.

Vegas didn't always feature its architecture. Casinos and hotels were basically just buildings with extraordinary signs out front, Rockwell says.

"That's emerged to the point to where now the buildings are part of the signs," he says. "But it is still a city essentially of basic buildings with stuff on them. I think they have gotten more extravagant, but I think as far as architecture with a capital 'A', there is not a lot of experimentation."

Rockwell says Vegas does, however, have a few sights that stand out.

"The fountains at the Bellagio are one of the greatest theatrical flourishes in the world. Incredible," he says. The Fremont Street Experience is "a piece of fascinating technology."

But he isn't all that impressed with the exteriors around town.

"Most of the interesting stuff is happening in the interiors," Rockwell says. "But I think that's probably been taken to its logical extreme, which is why CityCenter is happening.

"Without question it will raise the bar on every level. When you go into CityCenter, you'll see a higher level of spatial complexity."

Rockwell is working on the Crystals — the 500,000-square-foot shopping and entertainment center that will anchor the complex on Las Vegas Boulevard. He's designing the interior retail space under a crystalline canopy by Daniel Libeskind.

"So much of Las Vegas is one-way circulation, one way into a casino and one way out. CityCenter is going to be a radical departure from that. I see things evolving and changing into a more organic set of interwoven options," Rockwell says.

"The theory of trapping people in one space, the idea of no natural light, just doesn't make sense."

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