The Architecture of the Great GoogaMooga: David Rockwell Dishes on the Food Festival's "Carny" Design

This GoogaMooga employee isn't fooling anyone.
(Courtesy Getty Images)

NEW YORK — After 26 years of designing restaurants in New York City, David Rockwell has become a go-to for gourmands. The architect is behind the atmosphere — an integral part of a good dining experience, and an essential component of a Zagat's rating — at such foodie paradises as Maialino, A Voce, and Adour Alain Ducasse. This weekend, however, Rockwell showed off his set-design skills at Googa Mooga, the massive two-day outdoor food festival that debuted Saturday in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. He effectively provided the vendors a stage, giving the event a performing arts treatment more akin to his set for the recent Broadway revival of "Hairspray" than the interior of Nobu

"Googa Mooga has kind of a carny implication," Rockwell said during a Saturday preview of the grounds. Carnival kitsch pervaded the rolling, Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Nethermead meadow, including a pillar-sized Dayglow orange four-tiered cake; the URBarn, a framework of red metal depicting something between the silhouette of a barn and an urban cityscape; and a giant steel pig marked "Hamageddon," a Burning Man artist-designed homage to both bacon and heavy metal (basically, all the kind of goofy landmarks that make ideal meeting places when you get separated from your friends). Despite the pop whimsy, "We wanted it to not feel like it landed from another planet," Rockwell said, "so that's why there’s an urban aesthetic to a lot of it as well."

Rather than uniform stalls for the food vendors, each was outfitted with a unique awning and painted façade ranging from bright blue stripes to faded graffiti and deep burgundy bricks. Inspired by the storefronts of New York, the goal was "funkiness and diversity." "If you look at a city strip, there’s so much variety," said Rockwell. "When you look at festivals they don’t have any of that. This is a way to take that variety  and express that so that every vendor gets a cool individual piece that's part of an ensemble." 

To enhance the communal spirit, the grounds were dotted with long countertops designed to look like police barricades and be shared by ferocious foodies. Nothing was closed off: rather than placing bars inside the perimeter of a four-walled tent, the design team placed them in aisles at the center of open pavilions, letting in the park on all sides. The bars' copper-topped counters were meant to start showing their age within a few years — assuming all goes according to plan and the fair is still around. Everything was designed to be disassembled and stored to last for the future Googa Mooga performances. "One of my keen interests is the intersection between theater and architecture," Rockwell said. "Everyone loves it when the circus comes to town. There’s something exciting about the arrival of it. There's going got be more need of performances that can come and go."

How many more times Googa Mooga will come to Prospect Park remains to be seen. What was a rollicking good time for some was an overcrowded fiasco for others. Saturday, those who attended early got to snag food from the likes of Luke's Lobster Roll and the Spotted Pig before the booths were swamped with lines and many purveyors ran out of food (ARTINFO, luckily, was part of the early set). But, those who attended later were treated to a superb performance by the Roots, who caught the last sliver of light as the sun set over the Nethermead Meadow. Those who splurged for the Extra Mooga VIP passes got to spend an explicative-peppered hour asking culinary polemicist Anthony Bourdain questions, and watched former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy perform a DJ set late into the night, until his diamond-shaped disco ball was lowered, dismantled, and packed away until the next Googa Mooga.

To see highlights from the debut Googa Mooga, including the architecture, Silent Disco, and an extensive Q&A with Anthony Bourdain, click the slide show.