TED temporary theatre, Vancouver, by Rockwell Group

  • The TED’s conference theatre’s opening night. Credit: Ryan Lash

  • http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9205/images/270198/large/TED-Conference.jpg$,

  • The structure comprises 8,000 numbered lengths of wood.

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  • Details from the structure’s interior

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  • Details from the structure’s interior

  • http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9205/images/270198/large/TED-Conference.jpg$,http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9205/images/270199/large/Structure.jpg$,http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9205/images/270200/large/Structure-Interior.jpg$,http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9205/images/270201/large/Structure-Interior1.jpg$,

  • The 1,200-seat auditorium has 14 types of seating.

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  • Working from a digital model the frame is assembled.

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  • The seating bowl is constructed.

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  • The perimeter trellis in lifted into place.

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  • The CNC-milled timber elements are individually coded

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David Rockwell brought his considerable theatre and stage-set design experience to create a quickly built and reusable stage for the annual TED conference.


Client: TED

Designer: Rockwell Group

Size: 1,860 sq m

Build time: 1 week

Words by Emily Martin

In 1984 a four-day speaker conference was set up in California aimed at converging issues surrounding technology, entertainment and design (TED).Thirty years on the non-profit organisation now covers almost all topics in more than 100 languages, accompanied by its well-known tagline 'ideas worth spreading'. This March, TED decided to relocate the annual conference from Long Beach in California to Vancouver for its 30th anniversary and secured the 4,200 sq m main ballroom in the Vancouver Convention Centre for the conference's venue.

TED curator Chris Anderson contacted David Rockwell, founder and president of Rockwell Group, to propose a theatre design solution suitable for the venue and event. With Rockwell's 15 years of 'institutional knowledge' of the conference as a longstanding speaker and participant at TED and with a 30-year track record of designing hotels, restaurants, hospitals, temporary events (and even set designs for theatre, film and TV - including the Oscars), Rockwell Group was deemed the clear choice for the job.

The structure comprises 8,000 numbered lengths of wood.
The structure comprises 8,000 numbered lengths of wood.

'I've had a lifelong fascination with theatre as public performance, as an art form, and as a powerful narrative,' says Rockwell. 'This interest underpins all of my work. I founded Rockwell Group with the belief that built environments should be designed to encourage people to gather, connect and share experiences.'

Conceiving the idea of a temporary and portable theatre that could be installed inside the ballroom in a week, seat 1,200 people, dismantled in a few days, and be reused every year, presented a key challenge of transforming the space within a tight schedule.

Details from the structure’s interior
Details from the structure's interior

Rockwell explains: 'Since TED was renting empty ballroom space in a convention centre, every moment was critical. The theatre had to be an efficient kit-of-parts that could be assembled and disassembled quickly. The structure is made from approximately 8,000 precisely cut and numbered pieces of wood, and we had less than a week to assemble a 1,200-seat theatre!'

Rockwell was keen to create a connection between the audience and the speaker, using an idea to 'reinvent' the conventional theatre format. The theatre design adopted an arena-style structure, with a 180-degree wraparound evocative of an Elizabethan theatre, with the structure comprising a 'seating bowl' made up of different segments that radiate from the stage.

Details from the structure’s interior

'The audience really surrounds the main stage and makes the theatre more intimate,' says Rockwell. And recognising the social-related activity occurring at the conference, as well as the talks, the theatre was designed to incorporate more than 10 different seating options including ringside benches, lounge seating groupings, rows with combination of benches and chairs, and a standing-room area in the back row where people can blog without disturbing the rest of the audience.

The 1,200-seat auditorium has 14 types of seating.
The 1,200-seat auditorium has 14 types of seating.

Closer to the front row are custom-built floor lounges, inspired by the social and informal nature of TED's New York office and lounges furnished with bean bags. 'We also drew inspiration from festivals, spectacles and community events such as music festivals, circuses and people simply sitting around a campfire,' says Rockwell.

Working from a digital model the frame is assembled.
Working from a digital model the frame is assembled.

The theatre comprises smaller components that can be repeatedly assembled and disassembled. The majority of the components are made from Douglas fir. 'Both Rockwell Group and TED felt it was important that the theatre reflected Vancouver's fantastic local landscape and the convention centre's commitment to sustainability,' explains Rockwell.

The seating bowl is constructed.
The seating bowl is constructed.

'The majority of components were made from locally harvested wood. Additionally, we worked with a company called Nussli, which fabricated the theatre's components with a computer-aided cutting machine - generating only two per cent waste once all of the material was cut and processed.'

The perimeter trellis in lifted into place.
The perimeter trellis in lifted into place.

The theatre features bespoke furniture, manufactured by Steelcase, that will accompany it wherever it is erected. 'We worked with Steelcase which made, and in some cases customised, all of the furniture for the theatre.

The different seating options created multiple mini-communities - comfortable areas where people can both watch presentations and socialise,' says Rockwell. The theatre also features Layered Luxe Crase, a new carpet by Rockwell Group, as well as a red stage.

Describing the theatre as 'hybrid', Rockwell says that the design is unique through the creation of the temporary and customised element made to feel like a permanent structure.

The CNC-milled timber elements are individually coded
The CNC-milled timber elements are individually coded.

'Also, the different types of seating is pretty unique and reflects the nature of the TED conference,' he adds. 'TED is essentially a mash-up of theatre and festival. Audience members are sitting in a single venue each day for more than four hours - longer than the longest movie or concert that you've seen.'

'I like to take tools from my scenic designer's toolbox and apply them to my architectural projects - and vice versa. The TED theatre represents a true intersection between architecture and theatre, which really made it our dream project.'

Main suppliers

Furniture: Steelcase steelcase.com

Lighting: Varilite vari-lite.com, Colorkinetics colorkinetics.com

Flooring: Shaw Hospitality Group shawhospitalitygroup.com

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