Cultural Affairs

Projects Il Fornello, Toronto, Ontario

Architect Giannone Associates Architects

Text Leslie Jen

In existence for just over a decade, Giannone Associates Architects is led by the husband-and-wife team of Ralph Giannone and Pina Petricone. Comprising a staff of 13, their downtown Toronto office in the city’s design district is responsible for some of the most conceptually interesting work in recent history. Though the breadth of their portfolio includes large-scale developments such as the revisioning of the historic Don Mills Centre–a work still in progress–and the recently completed mixed-use residential community of Port Credit Village along the shores of Lake Ontario, they have become best known for a series of small commercial restaurant and retail spaces dotted throughout Toronto’s downtown core. Popular dining establishments that bear the Giannone design treatment include Bar Italia, Bar None, Fresh, Le Select Bistro, the expansion to Terroni on Queen Street West, and the recent Il Fornello in the heart of the gay village. Undeniably attractive as they are, these projects go beyond their immediate appeal as enticing shiny little baubles animating the urban streetscape, or merely pleasant spaces in which to while away an evening. An unusual and innovative sense of materiality permeates their work, as does an unabashed love for culture, the city, and the urban condition. And there is a conceptual sophistication and a considered design process that becomes evident the longer one lingers in one of their spaces, a result due in large part to Petricone’s intellectual rigour and involvement as a professor of architecture at the University of Toronto.

The preoccupations and ideologies upon which the firm’s design work is premised appear to culminate in the recent design of Il Fornello, the Italian restaurant chain’s newest location on Church Street in Toronto’s gay village. In this project, the architects have achieved a synthesis of elements that can be traced to all their previous works to date. The most obvious feature is the pulled-back front faade, an idea borrowed from their first project, Bar Italia, designed in 1995. In a gesture contrary to prevailing urban design theory, the recessed faade of Bar Italia does not erode the street edge in an antisocial fashion, but rather creates an intermediary zone that solves the problem of limited patio space on the sidewalk of Little Italy’s College Street. This enlarged outdoor space encourages the sociability, communality and liveliness of patio culture, while the roof overhead offers protection from the elements. This forecourt is the beginning of a procession of zones through the deep space, in which a sense of circulation and promenade is heightened, as is an awareness of the distinctive characteristics of the program.

And so the architects have come full circle with Il Fornello, a project completed a full decade after Bar Italia, where the idea of the recessed front faade is developed even further and conceived of as a rolling stage of sorts. A fully moveable mullion-free glass wall framed by fuchsia-painted steel glides on tracks recessed in the side walls, and can be fixed in any position up to its maximum depth of 18 feet. This brilliant architectural feature offers the flexibility of maximizing indoor space during winter months, or conversely, sliding back in warmer temperatures to create an airy, open and deep outdoor lounge space that gathers up and collects the life and activity of Church Street, funnelling it into the restaurant proper.

As firmly committed urbanists, history, site and cultural specificity inform Giannone’s and Petricone’s work to a great degree. While the existing Italian neighbourhood context was considered in the design of Bar Italia, and the health-conscious vegan clientele was a critical lifestyle and cultural factor implemented in the scheme for Fresh, Il Fornello’s location in the gay village provided an obvious reference point from which to begin the design process. Taking inspiration from the overt dramatic and theatrical qualities of gay culture for this restaurant situated near the vital intersection of Church and Wellesley Streets–the iconic heart of the gay village–concepts of stage, proscenium, set and mask were used as conceptual markers in creating a space of clearly defined zones and possible narratives.

A proscenium arch of sorts was created through the repetitive bands of sapele wood panelling that span the ceiling, bending where they meet the existing party walls to define the dining area as a space of performance. It is here that the idea of the party wall also figures prominently as a generator of the restaurant’s design, not surprising as the party wall has been a structural reality that Giannone Associates have had to confront time and again in virtually all of their projects to date, most occupying tight urban sites. To emphasize the sensation of the party wall compressing the deep narrow space on either side, the proscenium arch/ceiling plane is manipulated in such a way as to register the sensation of buckling under compression. Further, the spacing between the wood panels suggests a fissuring or coming apart at the seams due to compressive forces. These gaps or fissures between the panels form convenient recesses in the wall and ceiling planes into which lighting or display objects are placed.

It is here that previous excursions into the notion of decoration are further developed. Considered anathema to high modernism, the architects have skilfully incorporated decoration, texture and collections of objects into the overall design scheme. In the firm’s design of a new showroom for furniture purveyor Herman Miller in the spring of 2005, they created not only innovative and decorative lighting fixtures ingeniously utilizing the wooden seats and backs of Eames lounge chairs, but also referenced important historical roots of the company: these light sculptures are meant to evoke sitting beneath a canopy of beech trees at Marigold, the Herman Miller villa in Michigan where Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and other design stars are said to have spent hours in contemplation. And in their 2002 project for Fresh, this practice of decoration, ornament and collection was already evident. The interior boasts highly textural and patterned wall surfaces comprised of multiple layers, described as peels, rinds or husks, a nod to the restaurant’s fruit and vegetable-heavy menu. To increase the karmic quotient, a collection of jolly Buddha statues on display complete the playful and inspired design. Similarly, at Il Fornello, the seriality of collection is evident in the ordered grid of white ceramic dinner plates adorning the back wall, forming a set or backdrop against which the drama unfolds. Acknowledging the restaurant’s Italian roots, Maiolica ceramic objects are on display along one wall. And in a surprising twist, long wooden pizza paddles make an appearance outside their usual function in the kitchen, now as decorative elements hung vertically on the wall in a series.

The gilded mask element of the whole theatrical construct is expressed through the gold satin-finish aluminum screen sheathing the bathroom block beneath the wood proscenium. To kick the glamour up a notch, this thin metallic veil offers a softly iridescent surface off which patrons can catch their own–and others’–reflections.

Recalling again their project for the Herman Miller showroom, where the architects’ reverence for history is expressed in the black-and-white supergraphic images of the company’s manufacturing plant that adorn the walls, the same technique is utilized at Il Fornello. Enlarged historical photographs of the restaurant owners’ families line the walls of the dark washroom corridor, but they are cleverly manipulated, cut, pasted and rearranged in a manner as to suggest a tongue-in-cheek narrative, a sly comment on gay couplings and unconventional lifestyles.

It is clear that Giannone Associates Architects h
ave carved a niche for themselves in the design of sophisticated, nuanced and conceptually rigorous spaces that have also proven to be wildly popular. They are making strides toward expanding the scope and scale of their projects: Port Credit Village is an unqualified success, and the fruits of their labours as design architect for the Don Mills Centre project are eagerly anticipated. In addition, two hotels in Italy are currently being designed, as is a boutique condominium project in Toronto. Let’s hope that these new projects prove to be as fertile a ground on which the firm will continue to explore and exploit its innovative and conceptual design processes in great detail and to great success.

Client Il Fornello Restaurants, Tony Rago

Architect Team Ralph Giannone, Pina Petricone, Livio Di Fonzo, Brie Gillespie, Megan Cassidy

Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership

Mechanical Clarke Mechanical Design + W Mitchell & Son

Electrical Eltec Group Inc.

Contractor Il Fornello Group

Consultants Blast Metalworks, Dinetz, Pcl Graphics, Sawdust Custom Woodwork

Area 240 M2

Budget $900,000

Completion November 2005

Photography Tom Arban Unless Otherwise Noted