The Thrill of it All

If you were expecting David Rockwell’s new book, in collaboration with Bruce Mau, to be a design manifesto, a sprawling treatise packed with ideas and observations, or even simply a monograph on the architect’s numerous Broadway theater sets, boutique hotels, and interiors for Manhattan’s most fabulous restaurants, Spectacle is not that kind of undertaking. Rockwell—who celebrated his 50th birthday a few months ago with a bash featuring a half-hour fireworks display over the Hudson River, a Cirque du Soleil performance that included two buff gold men balancing on each other’s heads, and hors d’oeuvres from Nobu, Olives, Rosa Mexicano, Strip House, and a half-dozen other eateries—is not known as an intellectual so much as a lover of life.

This volume is not likely to change that reputation, but what it does offer is an optimistic visual survey of large-scale events in public spaces, premised on the notion that—contrary to one of the oldest and most venerated Western traditions—spectacles are not primarily superficial or manipulative phe­nomena. Instead, as Rockwell says in the introductory interview, they are loaded with magical possibilities that connect people, create communities, and produce heightened states of experience. “I didn’t want to do just another monograph,” Rockwell explains. “We wanted to investigate the shared value of public space. Originally we looked at theater as a model, and that easily morphed into the idea of theater without walls—how public space comes alive through the presence of people and how it’s temporarily transformed through design. I thought it would be interesting to hold a lens up to the world of these temporary communities, and we worked with Bruce Mau to develop a visual language to translate that onto the two-dimensional page.”

Spectacle is sprinkled with short glosses (in Rockwell typeface—cute!) and sidebar info-graphics on events such as mass bathing rituals in the Ganges, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, flash mobs, the Burning Man festival, marches on Washington, carnivals, and NASCAR races, each of them festooned with large photographs and appended by engaging interviews with organizers, artists, and public figures. It largely fits the mold of recent Bruce Mau Design–influenced tomes by, for, and about designers: absorbing in the manner of a picture magazine but begging for firsthand descriptive essays that convey the experience of being there. “This is really just a visual invitation,” Rockwell says. “It’s probably more related to travel and getting a look at things that are going on around the world and being inspired by images.”

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