The Art of Dining

Nobu 57 is closed, but the phones are ringing and people are knocking on the window, hoping perhaps for news of a last-minute cancellation. Inside the staff is flush with the news of a three-star review in the New York Times, and David Rockwell, giving me a tour of the restaurant his firm designed, is congratulating the cooks we encounter, quipping to each of them, “I hope I can still get a table.”

Climbing the grand staircase past the wall of pendulous sake barrels, we arrive at the dining floor, brisk with zealous air-conditioning and lit with the kind of stark contrast once only associated with German Expressionist stage sets. The design motif is a Japanese fishing village, an aqueous variation on the original Nobu: the dining area is wrapped in an undulating banquette inspired by fishing baskets, bamboo rings encased in resin rise like bubbles on the walls; overhead in the bar hangs a chandelier composed of 10,000 abalone shells. Rockwell is showing me his favorite seats, one at a table for two in the corner overlooking the entrance and bar below—“the ultimate perch where you can watch”—and one smack inthe middle of the dining floor. “There are nights when I go out and I want to be more of a voyeur,” Rockwell explains, “and there are times when I want to participate and be more of a performer.”

Rockwell’s 20-year-old firm, whose style of high-end entertainment architecture is being applied to everything from hospitals to Broadway sets, has some 160 employees. But despite its size and the scope of its work, the entire Rockwell Group organization continues to be embodied in the insouciant charm and boyish persona of its leader, who like a male Martha Stewart manages a miraculous omnipresence. Clients refer to “David” as if he personally drew the plans, mixed the paint, and applied the grout to the floor tiles. Despite generating mountains of press coverage, Rockwell conducts interviews in an unhurried and chatty manner, followed by a personal note in the mail saying how much he enjoyed the meeting. Asked how he can possibly keep track of every project coming in and out of his Union Square offices, Rockwell responds with a shrug: “I enjoy the idea stage and the end—those are the thrilling parts.”

Although only about 20 percent of the firm’s output is restaurant design, it remains the most exemplary of its work. “Restaurants have been an incredible laboratory for us to try out ideas,” says Rockwell, who tellingly describes them not as design challenges in volumes of space and light but as “two-hour mini-vacations.” Other architects might dismiss such populism, but Rockwell’s approach has had a significant impact on the proliferation of high-end eateries. Since the Rockwell Group designed the original Nobu downtown in 1994, “destination” dining—as “Crain’s New York Business” recently called it—has become a cultural and economic phenomenon. Celebrity chefs open restaurant empires (Nobu Matsuhisa now has 14 venues across the world bearing his name), and developers are happy to fund their construction, knowing that a high-end restaurant will attract wealthy tenants and highbrow retailers. Nobu 57’s landlord, the Lefrak Organization, put up half of the $8 million cost of building the Japanese fishing-village fantasia.

If the restaurant was once somewhere you went on the way to the theater, today it is the theater. In the carefully orchestrated fantasy of the high-end semiformal exotic eating experience, ordinary folk can step off the frenzy of the street and eat the food of kings in the footsteps of kings: Bill Clinton wrapped up the final day of his $15,000-a-head Clinton Global Initiative conference at Nobu 57 last September, Robert De Niro dines there, and supermodels are standard fare. At downtown Nobu the original design motive was to avoid the automatic visual cues of Japanese cuisine, but the combined effect of the food and Rockwell’s Madame Butterfly-inspired setting of stenciled cherry blossoms, chopstick bar stools, and an onyx and scorched-wood bar was to create an immersive environment—a venue for suspended disbelief. In the Rockwell Group monograph Pleasure, theater professor Arnold Aronson cites the semiotic theory that in theater everything on the stage is a sign charged by the power of the stage frame. Similarly at places like Nobu, Aronson says, the Rockwell Group uses architectural space as a “stagelike frame,” placing within it “a range of symbols whose total effect may be greater than their individual meanings.”

At Nobu 57 the theatrical motive is explicit. The double-height space is larger and grander than Nobu’s, the staircase leading to the dining floor provides a catwalk for arriving and departing guests, a venue for what Rockwell calls the “procession” inherent in dramatic architectural spaces. Equally important is the theatrical notion of entrance, which in theater denotes an actor’s passage between worlds. With the entire first floor and staircase devoted to the guest’s transition from the bustle of traffic-clogged 57th Street to the magical aquatic Asian grotto, Nobu 57 lavishly forsakes tables for this moment of dramatic reveal. Rockwell’s inspirations are no less grand than those of Radio City Music Hall and the Paris Opera. “Radio City’s entrance is as choreographed as any performance entrance,” he says. “Your sense of self and space changes there.”

Rockwell’s childhood was peripatetic and punctuated by sudden, unexpected changes. His father died when he was two; his mother was a touring vaudeville dancer and later a choreographer at a community theater on the Jersey shore; a brother died of AIDS. When Rockwell was nine his stepfather retired and moved the family to Guadalajara, Mexico, where he spent six and a half years before moving back to the United States and studying architecture at Syracuse University. Shortly before they left for Mexico, Rockwell went with his brothers to see a Broadway show, stopping in at a Schrafft’s soda fountain, where he first experienced dining as something other than a “bodily function.” He was then mesmerized by a production of Fiddler on the Roof featuring sets by legendary designer Boris Aronson. “I didn’t know anything about Boris Aronson,” he told an audience at the 1997 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in Monterey. “But this was a visceral experience that moved me.”

After a stint at London’s Architectural Association, an internship with lighting designer and theater consultant Roger Morgan, and a spell at architecture firm John Storyk & Associates, Rockwell landed his first freelance restaurant commission, the design of a Japanese restaurant on Manhattan’s 46th Street. For about half the budget of Nobu 57’s kitchen, he turned a small narrow space into a prototype eatery theater, using uplit glass blocks in the floor and a giant three-story silk mural backdrop created by costume designer Dona Granata. Sushi Zen won a lighting design award and gave Rockwell a calling card. After collaborating with Haverson Architecture and Design to build Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Thai fusion restaurant Vong in 1992—a kind of Gustav Klimt-goes-to-Bangkok setting of iridescent mosaics, lemongrass, and collaged ephemera—Rockwell got wind of a restaurant planned for the fusion cuisine of chef Nobu Matsuhisa. “I am an opera fan and had just seen a production of Madame Butterfly and was thinking about American-Japanese influences,” he says. “So I pursued the project.”

Meeting Rockwell at the construction site of the new Rosa Mexicano restaurant off Union Square in Manhattan, I note a connection between the restaurant’s centerpiece, a glowing water wall, and an influence he revealed at TED, a Josef Svoboda set for a Wagner opera. For Svoboda, Rockwell argued, light became a tangible form and “a wall to create a physical room.” Rosa Mexicano’s floor-to-ceiling blue translucent resin-tile water wall is illuminated from within by strings of LED lights, but the spectacle doesn’t stop there. Jutting from one side are figurines of Acapulco cliff divers, and on the other are about 60 small plinths holding paraffin candles. We pause for a dramatic moment in the project walk-through, as interior designer Gregory Stanford lights one of the candles to produce a dancing point of light on a glowing aquamarine tile wall. Rockwell stands back: “That is fucking amazing.”

Rockwell’s embrace of theater in restaurant design has come in the wake of theater’s cultural demise. Theater has often performed important civic, social, and religious functions, Aronson notes, but today is considered frivolous and nonessential. For investors—the new tastemakers in Western culture—frivolity in a restaurant has a more appealing sucker punch: the check. “I know the restaurant business is risky, but it’s certainly not as risky as the theater business,” says Doug Griebel, who as president and partner of the Rosa Mexicano Restaurants has hired Rockwell to design six of its seven restaurants. “I can pretty much tell you within a geographical region what my food and liquor costs are going to be. You’re betting on a proven and known concept with some variables, but they’re known variables.”

By extension, however, architecture like Rockwell’s has suffered from an association with cheap theatrics. In truth, Rockwell design is anything but cheap: a good portion of the $8 million investors poured into Nobu 57 went toward the commissioned artworks, spare-no-expense fabrication, and attention to detail on which the Rockwell Group prides itself. For example, the method for encasing the bamboo rings took two years to research and develop, and the ceiling of the upstairs private room is made of 107,000 sea urchin shells sourced on the Internet. The downstairs bar is made of onyx topped by a four-inch piece of live-edge walnut. Even the height of the sushi bar is based on a template from Nobu downtown, fine-tuned in consultation with the chef through several iterations of cardboard models to ensure optimum views of this spectacle of food preparation.

Yet theater is ephemeral, whereas architecture aspires to permanence and timelessness—or so the myth goes. The Rockwell Group seems to invite criticism by eschewing Modernist tropes like clean lines and austere interiors for a kind of experiential maximalism. They put a lot on the plate, constructing layered montages of references such asmood boards. Rockwell interiors suggest that the places in which we dine are no longer enough to hold our attention and must also offer escapist fictions—a trip to Japan, Acapulco, or a space station (Rockwell’s most ostentatiously themed restaurant, Pod, in Philadelphia, draws inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001). Nobu 57 is not so far removed in this respect from a Jekyll and Hyde or a Rainforest Café.

But this strange dining hyperreality does not preclude genuine social interaction. Back in the empty upstairs of Nobu 57, Rockwell pauses to point out an optimum moment where theatrical elements combine; there is the collage of abstracted elements, the banquettes, the white terrazzo behind the sushi chefs, and the floating bamboo rings, none of which refers to a specific place or thing but—like a good play—allow multiple readings. “These banquettes are uplit, so at night you’re backlit and you look great,” he adds. “That’s an important thing.”

Such an apparently superficial concern—looking great—takes on a different meaning if dining in special places is considered a kind of parade, a ritual akin to the historical role of theater as a locus for religious and social rites. One is left to consider the Rockwell Group’s embrace of impermanence as an expression of simple and profound belief in the human need for ritual. Aspiring to permanence in architecture may just be, as Rockwell once said, a “mind fuck.”

A restaurant may not last as long as a building, but neither do we. Those who have lost family and friends know that eating together—be it in a soda fountain or a $100-a-meal restaurant—can be sacred. From his perch in Nobu 57, Rockwell says, “Coming from a family where there were a lot of transitions, and with the understanding that nothing is permanent, shared time was significant. We’ve made that significant in our designs in every possible way.”

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