Q & A with David Rockwell, architect of two W hotels in NY, and designer of a free-play playground in Lower Manhattan

Architects do more than design shiny new buildings. David Rockwell can vouch for that.

His firm, the Rockwell Group — which has designed the Elinor Bunin-Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, the W New York and the W Union Square — has taken a special interest in playgrounds. Working pro bono, the company, which has an office at 5 Union Square West as well as in Madrid and Dubai, designed Imagination Playground in Burling Slip, an unstructured free-play play space in Lower Manhattan, featuring a collection of loose parts like wheelbarrows, rolling carts and molded foam blocks, meant to encourage kids to play creatively. The project broke ground this spring.

A portable version, known as “Imagination Playground in a Box,” will be introduced in other cities around the country. The veteran architect also acted as production designer for the revamped Academy Awards show this year.

Rockwell spoke with The Real Deal about his firm’s latest projects.

How do the pro bono playground projects help the company’s bottom line?  

Our pro bono projects don’t affect our bottom line. Imagination Playground represents an area of tremendous exploration and passion for us. It was a self-initiated project that has really energized our creativity and curiosity.

Can you estimate what percentage of your company’s revenue is coming from overseas work? How does that compare to a year ago?    

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Since 2008 we have had significant growth in international work. We opened satellite offices in Dubai and Madrid in order to foster our relationships with current and future clients.

What effect has Dubai’s economic downturn had on your business?  

The current economic conditions have certainly affected building in Dubai, with less growth and ground-up construction. I still believe that there is and will be more opportunity in Dubai, but we are also extremely excited about its neighbors like Doha and Abu Dhabi, who are now really on the forefront of design and innovation. This is why we opened Rockwell Group Middle East [in November 2008]. With a branch in the United Arab Emirates we will be closer to current and future clients both in that region, and in the rest of Asia and Africa. 

You said more projects are coming from renovations of your own projects. Can you give me a recent example?

A good example is the W Union Square. We designed this flagship W Hotel in 2000, and were recently asked to renovate and refresh the guest rooms and lobby in order to further emphasize the hotel as a chic urban retreat.

Is the W Hotel on Vieques the first project your company has done in Puerto Rico?

No, we actually designed the Condado Plaza Hotel and Casino in San Juan, in 2007. The [W Retreat & Spa Vieques] will be our second project in Puerto Rico, with 157 guest rooms and private villas [when it opens in January 2010].

What did you like about working on the Oscars project?

It was a chance to revisit a project I did eight or nine years ago, the Kodak Theatre [where the Oscars are held]. It was a chance to work with brilliant collaborators, [Oscars producers] Bill Condon and Larry Mark, and an opportunity to expand on my theory that design is about a communal experience. The idea was to celebrate the community of filmmakers and not just the winners.