Inside the Jubilant Spectacle that is Oscar Night 2021

The theme for the 93rd Academy Awards, set to air this Sunday in Los Angeles, is “Bring Your Movie Love.” It’s a deliberately effervescent message, intended to galvanize a global film community battered by the devastating COVID pandemic and bitter political strife. The ceremony is meant to project joy, imagination, inspiration, and, perhaps above all, a sense of togetherness and common cause in the face of an uncertain future. But how exactly does one signify joy and togetherness when pandemic protocols still demand prudence and distance?

The task of resolving that quandary—and a host of others—fell to architect and Tony Award-winning scenic designer David Rockwell, principal of New York City-based Rockwell Group and mastermind behind the sets for this year’s sprawling Oscars production. Unfolding in multiple venues across the city, and even one in London, the ceremony is a logistical beast. L.A.’s historic Union Station will host the main awards action, but other facets of the show will be broadcast from the Oscars’ traditional home at the Dolby Theatre as well as architect Renzo Piano’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which will officially open, at long last, on September 30.

“I thought a lot about the first Academy Awards celebrations in the ballrooms of the great L.A. hotels—the Hollywood Roosevelt, the Biltmore, the Ambassador. They all had a simple, understated elegance and an intimacy that feel right for the moment we’re in,” says Rockwell, who previously designed the sets for the 2008 and 2009 Oscar productions.

For all its volumetric brio and dazzling, polyglot architectural details—the 1939 building synthesizes elements of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and California Mission—Union Station presented myriad challenges. “Because we couldn’t really touch the walls and the ceiling, we devised a room within a room,” Rockwell says, describing his ministrations to the structure’s vast main concourse. The design team constructed an amphitheater that covers the room’s focal ticket counter, and orchestrated the seating arrangements in COVID-compliant pods of two. Since lighting and sound equipment could not be hung from the ceiling of the landmark building, Rockwell brought custom lamps and speakers to the individual banquettes. “The lamps give off a sense of candlelight, and everybody looks good in the candlelight,” the architect avers.

Other parts of the main Oscar set draw inspiration from sources as far-flung as the Art Deco grilles and gates that adorn many of L.A.’s classic buildings to the gallery walls Sir John Soane devised for his venerable London home—a mash-up of ideas and motifs that feels perfectly appropriate for the mashed-up architectural language of the building. Platinum railings, tones of saturated blue and chocolate, and backlit panels of mica conjure an atmosphere of luxurious but low-key glamour.

The pre- and post-ceremony festivities will take place in the station’s alfresco courtyards and patios, which Rockwell reimagined as a lush fantasyland of jacaranda trees dripping with lanterns and all manner of flora in a scene worthy of Maxfield Parrish. Teak decks will cover the lawns to prevent sinking stilettos, and a landscape of Roche Bobois’ Mah Jong sofas will offer respite for the nominees, winners, and guests. “We set the scene to allow for spontaneous moments and surprises throughout the evening. After all the Zooming we’ve done since the lockdown started, after all the attempts we’ve made to figure out how to celebrate remotely, this event is going to feel personal and alive,” Rockwell promises. And, as a reminder to audiences around the world, don’t forget to bring your movie love.

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