Popular Dining

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Dining in La Mensa’s ground floor windows.

The front tables at Verona.

Verona’s main bar with the green wall of the back room at rear.

Fresh produce displayed at La Mensa in stainless bins on Dexion racks.

More photos can be found
in the version!

Photography Bart Maiorana Review Margaret Krempff

Luigi Roselli, Sydney architect in demand for restaurants, delivers Verona and La Mensa, two dynamic venues on the Oxford Street strip

Since publication in the early 1990s of two lavishly detailed houses for INXS members, Luigi Rosselli has dwelled on the periphery of the Sydney architectural scene. His work has frequently seemed at odds with the city’s reigning trend towards a modernist aesthetic. Not surprisingly, his background is not in Sydney but in Switzerland, where he worked with, among others, Mario Botta; immersed in the culture of European post modernism.

His concern with the elaboration of material surfaces and textures, pursuit of appropriate forms for specific functions, and contextual approach to style are continuing preoccupations.

Despite his perceived isolation from the profession, Rosselli has secured a broad range of commissions—domestic and commercial. Two recent projects, the Verona Café in Darlinghurst and La Mensa in Paddington, are restaurant fitouts in larger complexes, situated within a few blocks of each other along Sydney’s Oxford Street.

In Tonkin Zulaikha’s transformation of an existing 1950s industrial building into the Verona arthaus cinema, almost the entire first floor is allocated to the Rosselli-designed restaurant. Successful precedents for first floor restaurants exist along this section of Oxford Street, and certainly in this instance the location has nothing but positive implications, thanks to Tonkin Zulaikha’s generous fenestration and the direct relationship of the café with vertical circulation. Approaching the building at night, the restaurant reads as a luminous band across the facade; the silhouettes of diners black against the bright interior.

Ascending the stairs, one is confronted by the café’s imposing front wall; a freestanding screen finished in waxed set plaster, describing an obtusely flexed curve that detachs the restaurant from the flow of cinema patrons. A long slash of glazing provides glimpses to the interior … inviting further investigation. The soffit of the services bulkhead protrudes into the first floor foyer, terminating in an unresolved manner at the underside of the stairs to the cinemas. The result is a congested clash of chunky elements, all demanding attention. Perhaps a quieter solution would have been more successful.

Once inside, Rosselli’s fitout has been approached in a spirit of deference to the shell in which it is contained. The dominant feature is the crisp orthogonal grid of the existing concrete structure, brought out in white against the otherwise recessive palette of the interior. The ceiling grid is somewhat encumbered by the addition of bands of continuous, raked, acoustic panels that conceal services and lighting. The resulting forms, however, are not unsympathetic to the structural system. Elsewhere—in the furniture and joinery—massive elements are minimised in various ways. The curved profile of the main bar is expressed in fine timber slats, while the zinc planes of the other bars are supported on frames of steel and timber. Rosselli-designed chairs and stools emphasise the interior’s skeletal nature.

In accord with client guidelines, the Verona’s materials and finishes are ecologically sound: there is no polyurethane or formaldehyde; recycled timber floorboards are finished with tung oil; set plaster walls are waxed, and water-soluble paint provides colour. Tonkin Zulaikha’s use of zinc is picked up and seen in the café’s bar and tabletops. Rosselli has left the material untreated to allow its natural patina to build up over time, to result ultimately in a dull grey surface. These finishes give warmth to the room.

Implicit in the Verona brief was the need to cater for several types of patron and in response, the interior is a fragmented space incorporating several distinct environments. One enters the café almost at its centre. The immediate impression is of a type of cafeteria seen frequently in Europe but rarely here; which represents an inclusive attitude to the act of eating and drinking, with patrons grouped standing or seated at bars, as well as at tables. Multiple experiences are offered, and the strength of Rosselli’s design lies in its capacity to give form to this variety without sacrificing cohesion.

The central area directly in front of the open kitchen and servery, originally designed to accommodate three curvaceous bars (only two have been installed) with stools, is logically the area for quick dining. The main bar wraps around the kitchen and stretches into the depths of a quieter zone—the quintessential back room— given depth by back wall panels of deep green.

Like the next-door lane from which the complex takes its name, the Verona Café is a space removed from the brightness adjacent to it, and even by day it is pervaded by a certain nocturnal melancholy. At the street edge, a continuous bench of timber slats occupies the entire facade; tables and chairs grouped along its length. It’s a successful, simple device with the familiarity of a park bench—and seated there, close to the tree canopy outside and watching the flow of the street below, it seems absolutely appropriate.

At La Mensa, the brief was to combine the interests of two clients—one a provider of quality fresh produce, the other a restaurateur of repute—in one outlet. Its name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Italian term for cafeteria; an institution of Latin society, often government-subsidised, that provides fast, convenient food to workers, students and anyone else who may drift in.

La Mensa shares the ground floor of the recently refurbished Australian Centre for Photography, with the centre’s reception area and gallery, all led into by a sinuous wall painted electric blue. Opposite this, the café entry is understated. Rosselli has removed crosswalls to create what reads as a high L-shaped space. He also has divided the facade into three glazed bays separated by masonry piers. Low-level wired glass louvres open for winter ventilation. Above, steel-framed bifold windows open back against the piers, then maximising the openings. At the rear, access to a simple rectilinear courtyard has been enlarged. Here, in an otherwise white fitout, colour is introduced via bright yellow chairs.

Two important components of the brief—fresh produce and the preparation of food—are arranged on opposite sides of the space. On one side, fruit and vegetables are contained in the simplest of small stainless steel bins hung on the wall, and preserves, oils, pasta, coffee and breads sit atop elegantly detailed shelves. Like a series of still lifes in a gallery, the rich colours and texture of these comestibles provide all the decoration needed for the otherwise unadorned space. The perfect foil to this is the relentless movement in the kitchen of white-aproned chefs against stainless steel.

Between these two related yet contrasting tableaux stands an elevated communal table where the consumption of food and drink seems to take on a celebratory significance. Its placement on axis with the opening to the courtyard enhances this effect. As at the Verona, a continuous slatted bench runs along the front wall. To reduce reflectivity, tabletops are of embossed stainless steel; surrounded by Chris Connell-designed chairs and stools in American oak. This is a fitout deceptive in simplicity. Rosselli has drawn from client requirements the essential elements and here given form to a celebration of food, its preparation and consumption. At La Mensa and at Verona, he demonstrates that he has the capacity to comprehend and translate into built expression all of the rich possibilities of the brief. No wonder the commissions keep rolling in.

Margaret Krempff is an architect in Sydney.

Architect Luigi Rosselli. Kitchen Consultants Austmont. Engineers (La Mensa) Geoff Ninnes and Brad Fong.



Published online: 1 May 1996


Architecture Australia, May 1996

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