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Dining out on their designs

Restaurants are new venues for firms like Office dA to show their chops

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / March 16, 2008

A case could be made that the most creative architecture being done in Boston today is the design of new restaurants. Youngish architects, often just beginning their careers, are making the local dining scene into a sometimes brilliant display of theatrical invention.

The latest example is a month-old restaurant on Washington Street, across from Holy Cross Cathedral. Since the building it occupies was once, long ago, a bank (you can still read the "Penny Savings Bank" sign carved in stone above the door), the new eatery calls itself Banq. The designer is the architectural firm that is named, for reasons I've never fathomed, Office dA (pronounced to rhyme with "Bah").

You're not going to forget Banq once you walk into it. Your first impression is probably that you've migrated into a Bedouin encampment. The ceiling is made of wood, not canvas, but it swoops high and low as if it were billowing in the wind. The tables feel as if they're clustered among tents. Soon you notice that walls, floors, and tabletops, and also the bench seating in the booths, are all made of the same dark, richly grained wood. If you ask, you'll be told that the wood is bamboo, recycled from its original uses and, therefore, an example of green architecture.

The ceiling remains Banq's most remarkable innovation. It's made of sheets of plywood, hundreds of them. They hang down vertically like the fluttering pages of a half-open book. Their bottom edges are shaped in such a way that the sheets create the illusion of a single contoured surface, like a fabric suspended over your head. The plywood isn't bamboo, but it, too, is natural wood. Coming down quite low, it shrinks the tall former banking hall into something almost cozy. The owner suggests a metaphor: You feel that you're in a grove of banyan trees, their leaves and branches swooping low to the ground.

I've teased Office dA in the past for its love of what look to me like tobacco-stained surfaces, as for example in its recent library in Providence for the Rhode Island School of Design. Banq's bamboo is no exception. What the architects are doing is making you intensely aware of materiality. Banq is the opposite of a place like New York's Museum of Modern Art, where almost everything is white, flat, smooth and made of some indeterminate material.

Numerous architecture schools -of which Harvard is one example, under its recent chairperson Toshiko Mori -have made almost a fetish of thinking about materiality and experimenting with all the things you can do with materials. I think it's a reaction against the influence of the computer, which tends to make everything you draw look as if it's made of weightless colored plastic. Architects like Office dA are determined to let us know that we live not merely in a world of concepts and ideas but among tangible, physical materials. Architecture is for all the senses, not just the visual. (It's also for the aural, which leads to my one complaint about Banq. When filled with customers, it's noisy. The owners are thinking of adding sound-absorbent materials.)

Banq is also very much an exercise in today's world of globalization. One owner, Hemant Chowdhry, came to this country from India; he got started doing condo conversions in Back Bay. His partner, Mark Raab, grew up in Milan. Office dA's two partners, who are married to each other with two small children, are similarly diverse in background. Monica Ponce de Leon, who teaches architecture at Harvard, grew up in Venezuela. Nader Tehrani, who teaches at MIT, came to the United States from Iran. The same two owners and architects designed another memorable Boston restaurant, the eerily delightful Mantra, which the owners sold two years ago.

Already, Banq is doing well. On a recent Thursday night, the wait for a table was a full hour. It hadn't at that time been advertised. A few finishing touches are still not done. There are, for example, elegant oval openings, well above eye level, that pierce the wall between the men's and women's rooms. Still to come are mirrors on both ceilings, so if you look upward you'll get a teasing reflected peek into the other space.

Why the "q?" I ask Chowdhry. "The cuisine is a French version of South Asian," he says, "so we originally wanted the name to be the French word Banque, but too many people pronounced it 'bank you,' " he says.

Boston a generation ago wasn't, to say the least, a restaurant town. Julia Child was just beginning to help people learn to cook something at home besides steaks. But today restaurants pop up like mushrooms. And they open with a buzz, in much the way movies and stage shows have "openings." Is there now a whole subculture of restaurant-goers, who take in new restaurants the way theater-goers take in new shows? I'm not sure. So far, say the owners, 80 per cent of the patrons of Banq are locals from the South End neighborhood.

Architecture, at least in this country, has tended to be dominated by people in their mature years (or older: The late Philip Johnson practiced into his late 90s, and I. M. Pei today is busy while about to turn 90). A young architect's best chance to get a toehold on the profession was to start by doing modest porches and kitchen renovations, or maybe a cottage for Mom, and working up. As restaurants proliferate, they create a world of new opportunity for young and hip designers. Another of Boston's bright young firms -it calls itself Studio Luz (it's another married partnership, Anthony Piermarini and Hansy Barraza) has already turned out five, among them the martini bar at Diva, in Davis Square, which has won national recognition.

A restaurant like Banq is a cross between architecture and set design. You expect Sydney Greenstreet to rise from the next table. It's not only the French colonial food, not only the third-world bamboo. The whole concept of Banq is deeply cinematic. That's cinema in nostalgic sepia tones, of course, before the advent of color. Part of the pleasure of eating in a place like this is your sense that you are a performer on a set. Maybe, someday, a star?

Robert Campbell, the Globe's architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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