SFMoMA's In Situ Restaurant by Aidlin Darling Design links the community and the gallery


Bar and Leisure Focus: Adam Rouse of Aidlin Darling Design explains the background to the design for the In Situ restaurant at SFMoMA


Words by Amanda Birch

Adam Rouse, senior associate at Aidlin Darling Design, explains the background to the design for the In Situ restaurant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA).

In Situ is located within SFMoMA – how did this influence your design?

In support of chef Corey Lee’s culinary vision and SFMoMA’s greater mission, the design’s genesis was to emphasise visibility from the street and open accessibility to visitors within a simple, comfortable environment. Designated for the street-front space in the existing shell of the Mario Botta-designed portion of the recently re-opened SFMoMA, the interior volumes of the previous museum cafe and assembly hall were excavated and left partially raw and exposed as the blank canvas to work from. The restaurant was to feel like a natural continuation, yet a unique space, within the museum as a whole, in dialogue with the creative energy and ethos the SFMoMA offers the community.

The project employs timber, steel and concrete in a very spare and understated way. Why these materials?

As the excavation of space within the existing building was an important starting point, the shell of the space was returned to its raw state of concrete floors and expanded metal mesh ceilings, evocative of a Chelsea gallery space in New York City. This would be the base condition for the insertion of floating, white art walls, and architectural artefacts would help bracket space within the larger expanse of the restaurant. As a counterpoint to the rawness of the steel, glass and concrete, timber was employed to give both warmth and tactility.

What was your ambition for the interior?

The ambition for the restaurant was for it to operate on different levels, from the urban to the intimate; as a passage from and beacon to the bustling city and museum atrium adjacent, to a setting where the senses remain piqued, yet can rest within and on serene surfaces and textures. This is to prepare the patron for a focused culinary experience.

Could you describe the bar concept?

Although a comprehensive beverage programme was an important element to the restaurant’s operation, the team shifted away from an identifiable bar. A visually open bar would have been a distraction from the ethos of the space. We therefore rendered the bar element as a steel and felt solid volume, with its operation facing the kitchen suites. Pass-throughs were carved out for drinks to be picked up and delivered to patrons lounging adjacent. Floating shelves within these pass-throughs allow for the presentation of organised glassware, indicating the activity behind the felt panels.

Rouse says the brief was to create ‘a simple, comfortable environment’Rouse says the brief was to create ‘a simple, comfortable environment’.

Were you striving to create a timeless interior?

We took great care to address the need for a timeless experience, yet understood the relative brevity of an architectural intervention in a restaurant’s lifespan. The concept of beginning with a raw base shell, then adding elements, could be more easily managed in future shifts of the restaurant’s sensory and culinary missions. Integral to this approach was the use of non-precious materials innate to the embedded sensory catalogues shared by people from around the world: wood, concrete and steel. These materials were elevated in character from rough to refined throughout the space.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

The initial challenge was the conceptual discussion of how the space could be flexible enough to accommodate the variety of dishes that would be presented. An additional operational challenge was making the restaurant accessible from both the street front entrance and the museum atrium, each with potentially disparate hours. The solution was operable dark wood pocketing panels that would cover the entrance and glazed window openings to the museum atrium when needed. This created a visually and acoustically absorbent felt and wood panel rhythm when closed down.

Do you think bar and restaurant design is different in the USA compared to Europe?

As the classic bar and restaurant layout typologies have continued to be strongly represented in both the USA and Europe, we have seen an intriguing shift to decentralised programmes within restaurants. Instead of anchoring a space with a bar element, service credenzas, beverage programme elements and kitchen elements are interspersed throughout the entirety of the restaurants. This affords a more immersive experience for the patron in the workings of the restaurant and shies away from the traditional binary front-of-house versus back-of-house separation.

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