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At the Oscars, David Rockwell's architecture of forced intimacy

February 23, 2009 |  1:43 pm


The slim credit that flashed by at the end of the broadcast -- "Production Designer: David Rockwell" -- hardly hinted at the deep, sometimes very odd architectural symbolism that piled up during Sunday night's Academy Awards.

Rockwell, a New York architect known for his lengthy resume, shaggy hair and productive ease with the press, had been brought in to thoroughly re-image the interior of the Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars have been held since 2002. Working closely with Bill Condon, one of the evening's producers, Rockwell set out to make the stage layout less of a static backdrop and more of a high-low proving ground where digital effects and personal emotion could have room to roam.

Kodak_sceneComplicating matters was the fact that Rockwell designed the existing stage setup -- and the rest of the Kodak Theatre. Imagine Donald Deskey, who created the interiors of Radio City Music Hall, being hired to re-energize his work, or Victor Gruen asked to make over one of his mall interiors.

Given a rare chance to rewrite himself -- for an audience of hundreds of millions, no less -- Rockwell produced some winning but also some jarring effects. The boldest stroke was to splinter the sight lines into a thousand pieces. Instead of a single podium and the occasional film clip, Rockwell gave us a whole armada of hanging and flying screens. Instead of a proscenium stage separated from the audience by an intimidatingly steep staircase and a yawning orchestra pit, he designed a low, semicircular thrust stage with seats wrapping tightly around it.

That compelled the nominees to look not only at the stage but at each other. Hanging chandeliers and a few numbers when the band sat on risers onstage added to the clubby feel. At the same time, architectural academics got to congratulate themselves for seeing in Rockwell's design a version of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, the prison design in which individual cells surround a single guard post in the middle of a circle. Bentham's invention has been called a "surveillance machine," which isn't a bad way to describe a stage set that enabled host Hugh Jackman to play a toe-tapping warden in black tie and tails.

Angelina_jolie_and_brad_pittThat sense of punitive intimacy -- you, Big Star, will sit here until the three hours are up, squeezed in next to Amy Adams' date or Meryl Streep's daughter or some Pixar guy you excuse yourself for not recognizing because he lives in Emeryville -- created many of the night's squirmiest moments. Reaction shots from nominees and others in the audience were almost comically easy to frame, including the already-infamous quick cut from Jennifer Aniston at the podium to Angelina Jolie in the front row.

Rockwell is an equal-opportunity collagist, a pastiche artist in the broadest, most democratic and most unapologetic sense. If he knows his Bentham and his Michaelangelo (after whose Piazza Campidoglio in Rome Rockwell patterned the curving design that topped the stage and climbed the front of the podium), he also knows how to wow a mass audience. Like Baz Luhrmann, whose shadow loomed everywhere during this year's show, and who popped up near the end to take a bow for organizing a typically stuffed-to-the-gills musical number, he subscribes to the artistic theory that if you cram enough cultural and aesthetic references into your interior design, movie or stage show, it's entirely possible to please all the people all the time. (Box-office numbers for "Australia" notwithstanding.)

If there were clear design missteps, they were more tonal than aesthetic. In an effort to keep up with our emerging cost-conscious Age of Simplicity, Jackman opened the show with an elaborate song-and-dance number about frankness and frugality, peppered with references to Craigslist and backed with cardboard sets. If pulling off that combination was a difficult task in theory, it was made impossible by the fact that the act unfolded beneath Rockwell's hanging rainbow of 100,000 Swarovski crystals. Watching as those crystals literally framed the night's events, you got the sense that the shiniest elements of the Oscar production were selected before the Wall Street meltdown and the many recession references crammed in after it.

The result was a show that pursued indulgent glamour and then flogged itself for doing so. In that sense, Rockwell's seating design, forcing the nominees to face each other in an uncomfortably tight semicircle, made sense for a culture now looking everywhere for scapegoats and mea culpas. It was like a folding-chair ring of shame at a 12-step meeting. Hi, my name is David, and I'm an architect.

--Christopher Hawthorne

Top photo: The reconfigured Kodak Theatre. Credit: Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty Images. Middle photo: A view from the sidelines as "Slumdog Millionaire" wins. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and others get cozy. Credit: Darren Decker / EPA