As a trend-setting designer and architect, David Rockwell has done it all — from Broadway shows and a restaurant partly owned by Robert De Niro to children’s hospitals and a hip hotel near Times Square.
On Friday, his latest creation will open: the permanent home of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, a $41 million world-class movie complex that is both a community center for its Manhattan neighborhood and a staging ground for some of the finest new films and greatest old ones.
It was literally carved out of an old underground parking garage.
The Film Society is best known for hosting the New York Film Festival, starting Sept. 30 this year.
On its new facade on Manhattan’s West Side are the titles of 1,000 films screened since the society was founded in 1969 to spotlight American independent and world cinema.
"Our primary goal here was to create an accessible place that could celebrate community filmmakers in a kind of informal way," says Rockwell. "We were looking to create the best possible environment for filmmakers to show their films."
Rockwell, 53, strolls around the 17,000-square-foot venue, pointing out what he says is different from commercial movie complexes.
For starters, the Film Society is one of a dozen resident organizations of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the largest such complex in the nation.
Until now, films were shown at the Walter Reade Theater, all but hidden at the back of the Juilliard School building on West 65th Street. The year-round program keeps changing, with film series built around a main theme — whether a particular director, or movies from a single country or culture.
The Film Society’s successful basic approach will continue across the street at the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, with one big difference: The space is hardly hidden. A 90-foot glass front and 160 orange LED lights in the sidewalk "grab your attention and lead you in like a welcome mat," says Rockwell.
He had to make this facade fit into a much bigger context: the transformation of Lincoln Center. Over the past decade, it has morphed from a 16-acre "fortress" — built in the 1960s with windowless stone walls protecting it from a high-crime neighborhood — to today’s gleaming, translucent arts community inviting in one and all. There’s a modernistic central fountain, with dancing around it on summer nights. Just above the Film Society sits a see-through restaurant with a grass roof that serves as a public lawn, complete with the free Wi-Fi that covers all of Lincoln Center.
As the economy slumped in recent years, and arts funding with it, it became critical to throw open the center’s walls and doors, performing what architect Liz Diller called "an architectural strip-tease."
Her firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, oversaw the renewal plan. That included re-designing Alice Tully Hall, across West 65th Street from the Film Society, by wrapping it in mammoth glass walls facing Broadway.
Rockwell worked with Diller’s firm to coordinate his facade with the master plan, he told The Associated Press during an interview that started on a sunny spring morning on the sidewalk.
The complex features two main screening rooms. Instead of the traditional padded walls, these are made of perforated metal — acoustically absorptive and designed to look like the flowing curtains found in historic Italian opera houses that were converted to cinemas in the 1920s.
"We took something that has always been done a certain way and reinvented it," he says. The exit hallways are lined with another surprise — stitched paper.
Rockwell’s favorite space is in-between the two screening rooms — an 87-seat amphitheater facing the entrance, with leather stadium seating and a 152-inch plasma screen capable of 3D projection and any other film format. Maple strip flooring cascades down the risers, up the end walls and onto the ceiling panels. Glass side walls change in hue from frosted to translucent.
"It feels like you’re in a glowing capsule," he says.
This public gathering place is a setting for what does not usually happen in commercial theaters: screenings accompanied by discussions between directors and audiences, to eventually be live-streamed on the Internet.
In the entrance area in front of the amphitheater, visitors will be able to drop by a bookstore and a cafe to chat — without ever going to the movies.
"At so many film centers, you get your popcorn and you go into the screening room — after already spending so much time during the day looking at small screens one-on-one," he says. "One of the things the Film Society wanted to be about is conversation about film, a community of people with lots going on."
The project started in 2002, with Rockwell walking into a challenge, since the original space was part of Lincoln Center’s underground garage, plus underutilized office space belonging to the nearby Metropolitan Opera. The trickiest part was excavating around a giant mechanical plant for the entire arts center.
"It was like a Rubik’s cube — a series of things that had to fit together," says the designer, whose Rockwell Group has offices in New York and Madrid. Over the years, the Chicago-born creator has built a global reputation not only for technically superb, glamorous spaces like Manhattan’s Nobu restaurant — co-owned by DeNiro — but also the personal philosophy behind each project.
Whether space is used for film, food, music or children’s games, "it’s all about human relationships," he says, "about bringing people together."
The Film Society’s new venue celebrates "the part of going to see a film that involves conversation, meeting other people, socializing, curiosity, deciding what to see," he says.
The child of a vaudeville dancer and choreographer, Rockwell participated in a community theater that his mother ran when the family lived in Deal, N.J.
He loves drama.
His spectacular interiors include sets for Broadway hits like "Hairspray" and, currently, "The Normal Heart," as well as designs for the W hotel chain and the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, which hosts the Academy Awards. He’s also created sets for the Oscars.
In California, he built a portable cooking school for English chef Jamie Oliver — trucks that open into kitchens for tours of the state.
The new complex will open with a documentary film about The New York Times.
An urban media center commenting on urban media "is the perfect post-modern moment," says Rockwell.
He’s left his own bit of post-modern urban grit peeking out from the ceiling of the Film Society’s entrance — a few slabs of concrete from the old garage, plus some raw concrete columns and exposed ductwork.
"Not having all highly finished materials was a nod to the Lincoln Center garage the film center displaced, and to the roots of this place — slightly less buttoned up, slightly younger," says Rockwell.