When Frederick Law Olmstead designed Prospect Park in the 19th Century, it’s hard to imagine that he envisioned metallic flame-throwing pigs, 30’ tall wedding cakes, or a Big Gay Ice Cream Party; but alas, this was the sight at the first ever Great Googa Mooga 2012 this past weekend. Located in the rolling green meadows of the Nethermead in the center of the park, this festival offered an escape from the city unlike any other. It was produced by the very people who brought the entire landscape of music festivals to what we know today.
Superfly Presents is the team responsible for Bonnaroo and Outside Lands as well as the JazzFest late night shows in New Orleans, which propelled them forward and helped establish them in the music scene. They are in a large part responsible for the growth of music festivals as a platform to seeing all of your favorite artists. With Googa Mooga, they are hoping to do to food and drink what they did with music – make it the star and main attraction. That’s not to say that music is being thrown to the curb here; the servings are just being reshuffled and offered in a new way.
To help bring this vision to life; Superfly turned to architecture and design firm Rockwell Group and their years of experience in the restaurant industry and other hospitality and entertainment ventures. Rockwell Group’s fascination with immersive environments and creating human connections made them the leading candidate for this kind of role with the green pastures of Olmstead ripe for a drastic makeover. In their 2006 publication Spectacle, Rockwell Group documented temporary gatherings of all kinds such as the Olympics, Worlds Fairs, Burning Man, and circuses identifying some of the major attributes (Big, Bold, Brief, Connections, Transformations, Immersion) which led to the lasting memories and impacts that such events have. With Googa Mooga, there was an opportunity to apply these principles to a new festival and to identify and establish the brand that is to be for years.
I had the opportunity to go on a guided tour of the Googa Mooga site with founder and CEO, David Rockwell along with a few members of his design team. Jonathan Mayers, one of the founders of Superfly Presents was also present and we heard what they had to say regarding the impact of design on festivals and their inspirations and expectations for their first of potentially many collaborations.
What was described as “one big art project” by Rockwell, consisted of several different “experiences (beer, wine, green, pizza, pig, burger, coffee, and chocolate)” that were positioned throughout the Nethermeads in a way to promote as much human interaction as possible. Each experience was curated by its own guru, which included figures such as Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garret Oliver and iconic chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain as well as several other notable personalities.
With each experience, there were certain details that helped distinguish one from another. A major inspiration for the Beer Experience was the great halls of Oktoberfest. Large swooping fabrics covered the entire ceiling in this area, lowering the height and creating a more intimate space. There were chandeliers made entirely from beer bottles, counters dressed in beer caps, and of course great stretches of taps in one long row divided in the middle with 360-degree access. The Wine Experience, on the other hand, had a more rustic, countryside look, with counters and surfaces made of crates and containers.
Some of the other experiences had less of a precedent but added a great touch of fun and playfulness that should be ever-present on a festival site. On the opposite side of the festival site from the main stage was Hamageddon – a heavy metal tribute to pig. A massive steel fire-breathing pig was a difficult site to miss, and Led Zeppelin and Van Halen tribute bands helped add greatly to the overall ambiance of this area.
In addition to giant pigs, the festival site also featured several other landmarks to help distinguish it from others. A giant neon orange cake marked the central point and, in addition to providing colorful eye candy and photo ops, it also gave festival goers designated meeting areas. “Iconic structures come to symbolize (festivals)” said Jonathan Mayers, who should be one to know, as Bonnaroo and Outside Lands have grown to include tremendous art and sculpture components of their own as they have evolved.
Another challenge presented to the design team was how to treat over 75 vendors that would be spread throughout the site. The solution for this lay no further than the streets of Manhattan, just across the East River. Areas such as the Lower East Side were a major inspiration and the facade of each vendor was treated separately in order to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. The local vernacular was reflected through use of material as well as signage, with each vendor having their own hand-painted signs.
Although all of these structures are only designed to live on site for just a few days during the festival, the brevity offered an exciting challenge to the design team, one which would inspire them to make the site as impactful as possible. “Temporary does not need to look thrown together,” said Rockwell; much of the built work was made from low-cost, eco-friendly, and often found materials that could be put into storage and made available for reuse for future events. Another key to maximizing the impact on the festival goer was to create spaces conducive to interactions. Long tables were assembled in proximity to vendors and many of the serving stations in areas such as the beer and wine tents and market place were placed in center, allowing access on all sides while still providing vistas to your surroundings.
A major underlying goal in the design of this festival was promoting human connections and a communal spirit. Perhaps an unintentional contributor was the poor phone reception derived from an overload of the signals once the masses showed up. As a result, cell phone batteries were mostly drained leaving many without access to Internet or phone calls for the duration of the festival. Although the Googa Mooga app was extremely resourceful, containing maps of vendors, descriptions of food vendors, schedules, and other tidbits; people now had to rely on communicating with their neighbors for this kind of information which helped contribute to a rather friendly demeanor amongst most people and a communal feel overall. Additionally, there was no swarm of people motionlessly standing with mobile devices recording every second of performance or tweeting their latest meal.
Even the selection of the music acts seemed to go along with the overall vision and identity of Googa Mooga. The acts (Hall and Oates, Fitz and the Tantrums, the Roots, Preservation Hall Jazz Band to name a few) spanned genres and generations and each could be experienced in many ways. Whether lying on a blanket on a lush green lawn, dancing away at the front, or simply listening while chowing down on a soft-shelled crab sandwich – all of the music was very enjoyable. Being that this was billed as a food and drink festival first it was important that none of the music was at all alienating. Whether you were that familiar with the line-up or not, all of the music was accessible and easy to get into.
The endless sunshine and high temperatures that blanketed the park all weekend also played a huge factor in the establishment of Googa Mooga as a rite of passage into summer. Hopefully this is a tradition that can continue to grow. While there were some definite technical snags on Saturday that may have affected some people’s experience, by Sunday it was certainly clear that this was a lot more than just a day in the park.
Words and photos by Jesse Zryb