September 1, 2015
by Terri Peters
The seductive interior of Bar Raval is partially achieved through the organic curves of the CNC-milled mahogany bar.
PROJECT Bar Raval, Toronto, Ontario
TEXT Terri Peters
PHOTOS Jonathan Friedman/PARTISANS
To appreciate the design of Bar Raval, the best time to visit is early on a weekday. Most other times, the stunning Art Nouveau-inspired interior by Toronto’s PARTISANS is jam-packed with people leaning against the rippling CNC-milled bar, perching by the ergonomic ledges along the windows, and crowding around the wine vats that serve as tables.
At 9:00am, there are just two other patrons in the cozy 1,500-square-foot space, along with a few staff and a chef making stacks of breakfast pintxos in the open kitchen. An assortment of savoury tortilla espagnole and bites of fresh bread topped with cured meat lay on platters at the bar. One can peacefully sip a coffee at the impeccably detailed mahogany bar, or face the breeze at the windows, framed by massive laser-cut steel screens that filter the morning light.
Bar Raval is more than a typical shop fit-out, thanks to the perseverance of its detail-obsessed clients and the confidence of its ambitious young designers. Together, they transformed a nondescript brick building into a multi-sensory environment combining adventurous dining and design concepts.
“The client wanted to create the best bar in the world,” says PARTISANS cofounder Alexander Josephson, recalling his first meeting with celebrity chef Grant van Gameren, who co-owns the establishment with mixologists Mike Webster and Robin Goodfellow. “He brought bankers’ boxes full of Art Nouveau images, books on Spanish tile history and cuisine manuals,” says Josephson.
The counter, walls and ceiling of Bar Raval are adorned with CNC-cut solid mahogony boards. Instead of straight seams between the panels,
the designers created S-shaped joints that accentuate the bar’s curvilinear geometries and accommodate for seasonal warping and shrinkage of
the wood. Integrated lighting, shelving and display areas are also meticulously executed in this compact design.
The interior encourages people to move around and interact, so there are few chairs and no room dividers. Van Gameren’s favourite space is a curvy wooden ledge that creates an indoor-outdoor table where people can gather. “The design reflects the experience I want people to have when they come into the bar,” he says. “You can see a relaxed, open body language reflected in the room.”
Josephson and his team centred the design on a digitally fabricated mahogany bar, which seems to flow out of the dark wood floor, growing and stretching upwards to join the curvilinear walls and ceiling. “We reinvented the way the bar is laid out for this project. It looks very whimsical and aesthetic, but everything is designed to be functional,” says Josephson, pointing out integrated arm rails, an indentation that serves as a citrus bowl, and another area carved for holding bread. “The ceiling above became the chandelier; the apertures that you see are holding up shelves.”
A hollow at the end of the counter serves as a citrus bowl
The bar also incorporates personal eclectic touches, such as Wu Tang Clan motifs laser-cut into the integrated steel drip trays and the metal kitchen shelves. The owners are huge fans, and van Gameren insisted that these details be included. For the beer taps, the designers moulded the different bartenders’ hands to create bespoke removable grips that will be cast in bronze. They also mocked up the bar’s edge in clay to get an imprint of the head bartender’s lean, then remade the form in wood to create a perfectly comfortable support.
The interior is technologically experimental and also architecturally skillful, a rare combination. PARTISANS collaborated with local fabricators MCM and software engineers Mastercam to design a fabrication process for the CNC elements that retained the machine pathways, rather than smoothing them over with a final pass. All in all, the process engraved nine kilometres of grooves into more than 60 wood panels. PARTISANS recently won an American Institute of Architects’ R&D Award for the technique; juror and pioneering digital designer Marc Fornes praised the project as “an exquisite application of the technology, and certainly a precise one.”
The bar counter includes designated areas for bottles and a generous counter where platters of food can be put on display
The designers realized that due to the inevitable warping and shrinking of the wood in changing temperatures, the seams needed to be carefully planned. They designed S-shaped seams between the panels that allowed the edges to be perpendicular to the milling, making them more durable during fabrication and providing a natural, flowing transition between panels.
Many big-budget interiors use digital fabrication techniques—the wood for the bar and walls alone cost over $250,000. Architecturally, “it is the ethos that makes this project different,” says Josephson. “CNC is not a new technology, but being a designer and being able to control the software that controls the robotic arm—that actually is new.”
Eclectic pin-up areas and mood boards on the walls of PARTISANS’ studio point to multiple sources of inspiration: Gaudí, rivers, wood grains, even the muscular forms and tattoos of their clients. “They challenged us to reinvent Spanish Art Nouveau for Toronto,” says Josephson. “But how do you bring any new interpretation to something that was already so ahead of its time?”
The young office had few built projects when they were commissioned, but they were not short on ambition. They focused on using digital study models to test scale and material mock-ups to refine finishes. Their pin-up boards are crowded with wood details, hand sketches, tool-path diagrams, and digital drawings of laser-cut steel patterns.
A detail of the wood panels, which retain the grooves from the CNC machine’s robotic cutting tool
The team hit a steep learning curve translating the design from digital files to the tool paths of the CNC machine. In an earlier project for a CNC-milled sauna, the designers found that creating perfectly smooth surfaces that joined together seamlessly was extremely difficult. The ribbed wood details at Bar Raval were an attempt to add texture and make it harder to see imperfections and joints—although it actually made it more difficult to line up seams and patterns. “We had trouble getting the software to distinguish between the pattern lines and the cuts,” says PARTISANS partner Pooya Baktash. They worked closely with the software engineers in developing patches to the computer code to make it work.
Corten steel screens are cut with a pattern reminiscent of vintage tiles, lending a speckled shade to the bar’s window seating.
A constraint for Bar Raval was that the tailor-made interior renovation could not impact the structure or exterior façade, as the clients don’t own the building. Van Gameren suggests, half-jokingly, that it would be possible to pack up the customized interior and take it with him if Bar Raval ever has to move on. Only a few months after opening, the owners installed a wood deck, awning and secondary kitchen outside for additional space, a move that increased capacity by about two-thirds. But these additions are off-the-shelf components, and the investment and design impact remain on the interior.
In an era when many eateries are decorated with barn board and chalkboard paint, Bar Raval stands out. PARTISANS has produced a high-concept interior that works at multiple scales, from the space-defining mahogany bar to the bespoke ledges, niches and details that encourage people to move around the space. “The clients told us they wanted this place to last 100 years,” says Josephson. And it just might.
Terri Peters is a post-doctoral researcher at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. Her current research investigates how architecture can shape behaviour with regard to residential health-care environments.
Clients Grant van Gameren, Mike Webster and Robin Goodfellow | Architect Team Alexander Josephson, Pooya Baktash, Jonathan Friedman, Ivan Vasyliv, Ariel Cooke | Contractor Grant van Gameren | Wood Fabrication and Installation MCM2001 Inc. | Metals MCM2001 Inc. | Lighting TPL Lighting | Windows Tradewood | HVAC Perfect Degree | Audio Playlist | Project Management PARTISANS | Area 93 m2 | Budget Withheld | Completion February 2015