David Rockwell is holding out his hands in the shape of a triangle. He is demonstrating, through the most rudimentary means, how a kaleidoscope works. “Either three mirrors or two mirrors are fitted together, and as you roll the end chamber to make the pieces move, the images repeat … ” Trailing off, he steps behind his desk to respond to a text on his Blackberry, asks his secretary to place a phone call for him and scans his overbooked calendar to check the time of his next meeting. It is all too easy to describe the busy architect’s life as kaleidoscopic, or at the very least multi-faceted: as head of his own firm, the Rockwell Group, which he founded in 1984, he has mastered a juggling act that includes handling high-profile clients such as Emeril’s Restaurants in New Orleans, the W Hotel chain and the FAO Schwarz flagship toy store in New York, as well as overseeing the Lab, a design team within the Rockwell Group that focuses on interactive technology.
But Rockwell, who is 56 years old, tall, with salt-and-pepper hair and a forthright, no-nonsense manner, manages chaos well. No wonder he finds inspiration in the humble, yet enchanting object of the kaleidoscope, a toy invented in Britain in 1815 by Sir David Brewster that takes fragmentary odds and ends and composes them into a symmetrical whole. Quickly surveying some dozen kaleidoscopes arrayed on a shelf near his desk, Rockwell pulls out a small, lightweight wood cylinder and hands it to me. It is the first kaleidoscope he ever bought, when he was 17 and living in Guadalajara, Mexico after his family moved there from New Jersey. “All it consists of is the mirror,” he tells me. Unlike most kaleidoscopes, there are no objects inside. As I rotate it he picks up a red coffee cup and holds it in front of the tube. A scarlet splash enters the frame. “It takes images from the world and jumbles them up,” Rockwell says, adding that this is why he likes to use it as an analogy for his practice: it continually changes your perspective on the world.
Sitting near the kaleidoscope collection is an enlarged photograph of one of the architect’s first projects, which he made in graduate school at Syracuse University. It is a fish-eye view – resembling the convex end of a kaleidoscope – of a structure he built to hang a hammock in his dorm room in the mid-seventies. Since that serendipitous purchase in Mexico 39 years ago, Rockwell has acquired some 30 kaleidoscopes. He shows me one with a liquid chamber, its parts moving with molten slowness. Such visual luminosity lends itself well to video technology, a signature of the Rockwell Group’s work: projected on the facade of the Mauboussin jewellery store on Madison Avenue, which the Rockwell Group designed in 2008, are kaleidoscopic images made up of the jewellery. The Lab also created the Hall of Fragments for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, a projection using clips from movies that dissolved into colourful shards that expanded or shrunk according to the number of viewers walking throughthe passageway.
After showing me a kaleidoscope filled with bright feathers that unfurl like fans in the Moulin Rouge, Rockwell picks up an elegant small gold model from the 1930s, one of the oldest in his collection. This object triggers a memory of the 1957 film Funny Face, in which Fred Astaire plays a photographer based on Richard Avedon. It is possible, Rockwell muses, that the film, and the kaleidoscopic sets for the offices of the fashion magazine where Astaire works, inspired his latest set design for the musical Kinky Boots. The British musical opened in the US this year, and includes a factory that transforms into a glamorous international shoe fair.
Musical theatre is a major component of Rockwell’s life – he performed in community theatre as an adolescent – and his work. “Busby Berkeley was certainly inspired by kaleidoscopes,” he says, illustrating how the instrument has pervaded culture, but also alluding to the way in which film and theatre influence his own work. To design the Jet Blue terminal at JFK airport in 2008, Rockwell hired a choreographer to determine how people move through space – resulting in a multi-level environment that divides the space without forcing confused travellers to navigate unnecessary obstacles. When designing the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, where the Academy Awards ceremony takes place, he conceived the ceiling as a series of imbricated circles – another kaleidoscopic touch.
And then there is New York City itself, especially Times Square. For an expert in spectacle – Rockwell wrote a book on the history of public performance with Bruce Mau in 2006 – nothing beats this high-watted strip, with its endless spectrum of lights. “When it rains,” Rockwell notes, “the wet pavement creates an additional chamber, giving it a kaleidoscopic effect.”