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David Rockwell On The New Rituals Of Public Space

Conceiving and designing ways for flexible usage to help restaurants survive, and expanding those lessons to the public at large.

Produced by Zagat with

Capital One

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.

David Rockwell is founder and president of New York architecture and design firm Rockwell Group. The Rockwell portfolio includes decades of award-winning and groundbreaking properties, with a speciality in hotels, restaurants, and other public spaces. Early in the pandemic, Rockwell partnered with restaurants, neighborhoods, the city of New York, and other organizations for DineOut NYC, a collaborative effort to design modular systems for flexible structures suitable for outdoor dining.

The Rockwell Group studio was started in 1984. There have been moments in our 35-year history where I’ve been really aware of how architecture and design are able to be a proactive, pro-bono way to help the city. It started in 1993 and 1994 with AIDS and working with the Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids. I lived in New York when you saw whole swaths of the creative community being wiped out—my brother passed away from the disease in 1994.

I became chairman of DIFFA in 1994 or 1995. Through DIFFA, I got a very early experience of designers working on the premise of optimism, about making things. That was a very powerful experience for me. I was chairman of DIFFA for 12 years, and I’m still very involved. And we were also approached the week after 9/11 about helping a public school, P.S. 234. That turned into a decade-long commitment to building playgrounds, starting with one in Lower Manhattan, in a pro-bono effort called Imagination Playground.

There were many things I thought about as we saw our office move to being virtual in the pandemic. I looked out from 28th Street on a city with no people on the street. I’d been writing a book that comes out in May about the relationship of theater and architecture. One of the main points I was exploring is that theater without an audience or without cast members is inert. It’s an inert form. And I really think cities and buildings are the same way.

So my interest is in designing from the inside out, and from people out. As New Yorkers, we saw what the city was like when there were no people in the play. I started to talk to people in many industries—people in theater, people in restaurants. It was during late-night calls with different restaurateurs that I started to think about the future of restaurants. The only parameter we really understood at that moment was that when restaurants come back, they’re going to be a quarter full, or diners will be six feet away from each other. There were very strict metrics. And I started to think about what was going to make a safe space for restaurant workers to work, and for customers to feel comfortable coming back to restaurants.

I reached out to a friend of mine since 1993, Melba Wilson, who owns Melba’s restaurant. I spoke to Richard Melman in Chicago. I spoke to lots of people all over the country and started thinking about how the first place that dining is going to start to happen is out on the street, as a kind of front porch. I spoke to someone in the city departments of New York, and, of course, there was a huge amount of logistical red tape for any of that. We started out by doing a 40-page research project about how to make it happen. What would be the variables of sharing outdoor space? New York was beginning to redefine what public space is—not just the bigger public space, but these spaces in between sidewalks and restaurants. We acted as a group that could start to visualize some of these ideas so the city could get more comfortable with that happening.

At the same time, I wanted to find a way to contribute to some of the most underserved restaurants. We got Andrew Rigie on board as a partner from the NYC Hospitality Alliance. We formed a 501(c)(3) and raised money to build some of these installations. We put all of our basic design ideas online in the public domain. We raised money in the first week that the guidelines were approved. The city cut through so much of the complicated logistics to allow this to happen. Within that first week, we had six pilot programs opened—at least one in each borough, two in Brooklyn.

Our notion was to develop a kit of parts that anyone could reconfigure and do anything they wanted with. You’ve seen incredible creativity in people doing all kinds of installations. But our goal had always been to do bigger installations. Our challenge was, who would own those bigger installations? Because if it’s not attached to a restaurant, someone has to maintain it and care for it.

After those first six locations opened up, the DOT started working closely with us to identify neighborhoods where we could work with local business improvement districts or groups that would maintain these installations. We started with Chinatown on Mott Street, and then moved on to two in Flushing—one that was actually right near the most severely affected frontline workers—and then two in the South Bronx. It was just a way we felt we could, little by little, be a part of bringing some of that amazingly crucial life back to the streets.

I was totally inspired and blown away by the communities that worked together. In Chinatown, imagine the number of constituents that had to agree on just that one project, including the school that did the art installation of the mural.

And now, with the weather starting to get cooler, we’ve started to think and research on how you pivot a little bit towards indoors. But we’re still primarily working on the connection between outdoors and indoors. We’re very much committed to exploring heaters as an option. It’s a great unknown, but we’re deeply into it. We’re working with a great mechanical engineer, Cosentini Associates, and we have a number of partners who are helping us to think about different heating solutions, how they can be scalable, and how they can be more than electric heaters that don’t really provide much heat. There are heated tables in Japan, where the heat’s coming from below. In European cities they modify outdoors with warmer clothes and blankets. I think it’s going to be all of the above. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment. We’re in touch with DOT at least a couple of times a week about all this. They’re making it up as they go along, too. No one’s been through this before.

There are pinch points in the whole restaurant experience that were always underserved. There’s going to be a premium on really thinking through those problems. Sanitation won’t be a back-of-the-house amenity anymore—it’ll be one of the rituals of welcome. The six-foot social distancing will not continue post-pandemic, but I think creating places that could be subdivided into smaller rooms—more group-sized rooms, not just private dining rooms—while breaking out of the scale of the room is something that will possibly be helpful and informative. There are projects we’re working on that are opening up to this future.

One of the things that’s always fascinated me is portability—which is what theater is, essentially. Sets are portable. They come and they go. We used a scenic shop to build the DineOut installations. There are pockets of really smart craftsmanship and labor that understand portability and demountabilty, like the high-tech rock-and-roll touring world. So we’re bringing some of those capabilities into projects we’re doing right now. We’re working at a campus on a student center. We had always been looking at adaptability, but we’re now looking at things like distributed power—how to have the greatest amount of flexible resources.

Restaurants were fragile even before the pandemic. Profit margins were slimmer than people realized. Landlords were not taking any of the risk. I think this experience may point towards a future of more nimble spaces. All of the screens that we’ve designed for outdoor installations can pivot and be used for indoor installation. The notion that there are parts of the public space and our civic world that are better used for pedestrians than for cars—that’s a topic that’s going to continue on past the pandemic.

But the restaurant industry is a really inspiring industry. Chefs will naturally work together. I don’t know a lot of creative industries with that kind of pulling together. It’s inspiring to be a part of helping that community, because it’s certainly been a central part of my life. When I came to New York age 12, I did two things—I went to a Broadway show, and I had dinner at Schrafft’s. Those two experiences of dining and going to the theater in New York seared themselves into my being.

Now’s the time when people can be a little more intentional and thoughtful about how to adapt post-pandemic. And that’s not going to include just restaurants. It’s going to include performance spaces and libraries. In the Bronx, through the community installations we built, they are doing classrooms and music outside. Hospitality is making sure your guests’ needs are anticipated. There’s now a whole bunch of other ways to think about how to create safe, empathetic spaces that increase the quality of our public space. So I’m cautiously optimistic.