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David Rockwell on the staircase at Radio City Music Hall

David Rockwell on the staircase at Radio City Music Hall

April/May 2018

My interest in design was sparked by the theatre. When I was a kid, I was part of an amateur dramatics group in New Jersey. Everyone in the suburb I lived in got involved – the dentist, the teachers, the children – and one of my contributions was to make and paint the sets. But what really hooked me was my first visit to Radio City Music Hall in 1967. I remember being transported, overwhelmed by its architecture. And what struck me most was the staircase.

The theatre was designed by Edward Durell Stone and opened in 1932. The first thing you experience is his brilliance with spatial choreography. You enter the building through a low-ceilinged ticketing room, which sets the stage, and then you move into the soaring, 60-foot-tall foyer, a transition that offers a spectacular sense of arrival and welcome. The star is the curving staircase, with its gleaming bronze railing and gold leaf. It sweeps dramatically up one side of the lobby, giving you a grand, elevated view from the top, offset by two tubular chandeliers.

David Rockwell is an architect. He is currently working in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro on the Shed, a new cultural venue in Hudson Yards, New York. He was talking to Giovanna Dunmall

The interiors are by Donald Deskey, who was a proponent of the Bauhaus ideal that design shouldn’t cling to the past. There is none of the frenetic ornamentation typical of the time, but a streamlined Art Deco look. He experimented with new industrial materials like aluminium, Permatex and Bakelite, and layered them with more traditional luxuries such as gold, brass and marble. There’s also a clever mixing of hard, machine-like surfaces with softer, decorative pieces like the heroic floor-to-ceiling curtains that frame the stairs, and the deep red, green and gold mural by Ezra Winter. These combinations are the architectural version of sweet-and-sour food, and make the experience richer. Deskey brought together high and low to create a populist palace for entertainment that elevates the spirit. And he did so in the middle of the Depression, providing a place of escape and optimism.

The stairs are central to that feeling. They dictate so much about pacing – they are the architect’s way of speeding people up or slowing them down as they move through the space. The steps are broad and shallow, so ascending them feels more like a promenade or a dance than a climb. As you walk you can feel your posture open up.

I used the same idea in the JetBlue Terminal I designed for JFK airport, where I turned the stairs into bleachers or urban grandstands that are both a part of the movement of the airport and a place to withdraw to if you need to relax or eat. More recently we designed a restaurant called Tao in downtown New York and turned the entire 40-f00t width of it into one cascading stair.

It’s funny, but I don’t remember what I went to see on my first visit to Radio City Music Hall. But I remember what it felt like to be in that lobby. I had never seen anything like it.