AJA is a quick-service restaurant in Chandigarh designed by Arch.Lab. All of 900 sq ft, its aesthetic is consciously in sync with the concrete and landscaping which Chandigarh is synonymous with.
‘A restaurant whose design reflects the character of the city,’ said the brief. Really? The exercise might well start with defining the ‘character’ of the said city. In this case, there are no prizes for zeroing in on the concrete and landscaping employed by Le Corbusier in defining his vision of an urban city.
To some, Corbusier’s Brutalist expanses of concrete may represent a grim functionalism which still suffers from an identity crisis. With concrete, it’s difficult to get the aesthetics right. Said Rajnish Wattas of the Chandigarh College of Architecture, ‘Concrete is harsh to look at.’ Hence, to soften the blow, what better than greenery? Consequently, concrete has become associated with Chandigarh, together with its greenery – the trees reportedly outnumbering the buildings.
So Harsimran Singh and Mohit Vij of Arch.Lab decided to make these two elements the mainstay of their design for the restaurant, respecting the identity of the materials used. The attempt is to present an intriguing experience by creating an unexpected landscape in a familiar urban setting.
“Exposed concrete covers large areas in this space, echoing the visual character of Chandigarh,” says Harsimran. A long ramp (user-friendly for the handicapped), leads into the restaurant, acting as a bridge between the two environments, and creating a transition from outdoors to indoors.
On one side, it is flanked by a fragrant herb garden in shallow trays mounted on the wall, the aromas adding to the experience of a pleasurable space. “We did a good deal of research to find out which plants could survive with only artificial light, and the lux they would require,” says Mohit.
On the other side of the ramp, sunken 30 inches below, are dining tables and chairs for diners. The sunken space is separated physically and psychologically from the outdoor environment. The ceiling is 13 ft 6 inches high, suspended from which are light fixtures resembling long wooden tubes, which were designed in-house.
The same goes for the chairs, which are in three different heights, to match the kind of tables they are used with. There is a standard dining chair, some low level seating at the ‘community table’ and bar stools at the ledge next to the service counter.
“We spent many days designing a ‘family of furniture,’ including the prototype for the chairs, their legs, the angle of the seat and backrest. Most of the work was very hands-on. We even fixed some of the concrete panels ourselves,” recalls Mohit. Almost everything was specifically designed for this project and was customised on site, keeping in mind the sustainable concept of ‘zero km market’.
The space is centred around the community table, which summarises the whole concept of the restaurant. It also emphasises the sense of collaboration. A visually interesting rivulet in green meanders across the top of this community dining table. “It follows a curving organic path rather than a rigid geometric one,” says Mohit. Consisting of artificial grass in the recessed area of the table top, the whole section is covered with a sheet of glass, to facilitate maintenance and hygiene, while retaining the quirky look of the design.
A digitally created graphic by Ankita Thakur adds interest to a wall, breaking the monotony of the concrete. At the request of the chef, its design explores the idea of street food around the world. It brings to life the story about food, inspiring food lovers to think about its diversity. It also attempts to play with the idea of contemporary urban food culture. The art work on another wall is three-dimensional, consisting of wooden cubes in an abstract scatter.
Quite sensibly, the architects have separated the grain from the chaff in emulating the legendary Corbusier. Baking summers and freezing winters are not kind to concrete, and Corbusier’s use of this cheap, readily available and easily worked material is one of the reasons the city still has its detractors. But hopefully, in this restaurant, there are none of Corbusier’s much criticised errors in scale. Nor is this space simply a ‘machine to eat in’, as Corbusier may have wanted it to be.
The design in this restaurant could well be an architect’s metaphor…by architects…for architects.
Text By Devyani Jayakar
Photographs Purnesh Dev Nikhanj