Oct 23, 2009

Tadao Ando: Morimoto Restaurant

In my recent blog entries on the 21st century interior, the issue of theatricality has recurred several times. The intersection between the virtual spaces of the theater or cinema, and the actual spaces of physical interiors, seems both a vital and under-theorized connection with a long and somewhat marginalized history. In the United States, for example, the earliest professional designer, Elsie de Wolfe, began her career as an actor at the beginning of the 20th century; many of the best known designers of the interwar era, such as Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss and Russel Wright, began their careers in theater set design; while designers such as Morris Lapidus continued the theatrical impulse into the postwar era. An understanding of the contemporary interior as a stage set in which inhabitants “perform” social rituals or enact their identities (through seeing and being seen) seems a useful one. Rather than understanding the interior as an empty architectural container, the theatrical interior is an inherently dynamic, mediated environment, always already subject to a human gaze.

Christopher Innes, through a close analysis of the careers of Norman Bel Geddes and Joseph Urban, argues that in the 1920s, Broadway theater was a thoroughly modern medium which influenced not only the fashion and d├ęcor of its audience, but impacted upon their social and cultural values too. Bel Geddes and Urban worked on both theater and film sets, as well as on commissions for hotels, restaurants, retail spaces and private homes in the 1920s and 1930s. Innes argues that Bel Geddes’ and Urban’s scenery, lighting schemes, and technological innovations developed in their (virtual) theater projects leaked into their (actual) hotel lobbies, banquet rooms, cabarets, and ball rooms. The virtual Art Deco interiors featured in 1930s Hollywood cinema similarly spread into the actual world of both public and private spaces. This seepage between the theatrical or cinematic set and physical interior spaces continues to the present, as seen in my recent case studies: Naomi Leff’s Rhinelander Mansion for Polo/Ralph Lauren (1986); Philippe Starck’s Royalton Hotel (1988), Paramount Hotel (1990), and Hudson Hotel (2000); OMA/Rem Koolhaas’ Prada Flagship Store (2001); and the two New York restaurants of Karim Rashid, Nooch (2004) and Kurve (2008).

However, within an architectural context, this understanding of the interior as a mediated theatrical space is often suppressed by the continuation of modernist architectural ideals. The inherent conflict can be distilled into to three key dichotomies:

1. The Fake vs the Real. The moral imperative of modernist truth to materials and truth to form is undermined by the artificial materials and forms intended to create effects in the theatrical interior. This divide goes back to the 19th century modernist critique of Victorian designers’ use of faux materials, overly-elaborate forms and eclectic historical references.

2. The Temporal vs the Timeless. Modernist architecture’s drive for establishing timeless, universal designs stands opposed to the ephemeral and contextual nature of theatrical or cinematic sets. More than this, there is an implicit association of the overtly theatrical interior with the temporality of fashion: while stage sets are “dressed”, architectural spaces are ideally naked.

3. The Corporeal vs the Conceptual. The theatrical interior is conventionally associated with the immediate gratification of desire rather than with modernist architecture’s higher rational values. In the theatrical interior, the creation of a mood or an atmosphere which engages with the senses of the audience is valued more highly than an intellectual engagement.

These polemical extremes seem an unlikely introduction to an interior space designed by the contemporary master of authentic materials, abstract geometries and natural forces, Japanese architect Tadao Ando. And yet it is precisely these dichotomies that are played out in his recent New York restaurant, Morimoto.

Tadao Ando: Morimoto

While Ando’s career in Japan began with the founding of his Osaka office in 1969, it was not until the 1980s that he gained international prominence, particularly for his iconic Church of Light (1989) in Osaka, and Church on the Water (1988) on the island of Hokkaido. His architectural influences – cited by both Ando and subsequent critics – include the solidly modernist lineage of Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn, combined with elements of Japanese traditions. Ando’s architecture has been lauded for its use of raw materials (particularly his signature use of concrete), abstract forms, and spare, unadorned interiors. This emphasis on abstraction, the engagement with natural forces (light and shadow, wind and water), and above all his “pure” minimal spaces have been associated by many critics with higher, spiritual values (see, for example, Jin Baek’s recent monograph, Nothingness: Tadao Ando’s Christian Sacred Space). This sense of profundity is no doubt highlighted by the proliferation of black and white photographs of Ando’s spaces, emptied of any human inhabitants. However, Kenneth Frampton, in “Thoughts on Tadao Ando” (written when Ando received the 1995 Pritzker Prize), argued that Ando’s architecture “resists all spectacular apparatus of techno-scientific display, in order to testify to a moment that lies outside the constant threat of commodification.” For Frampton, the solemnity of Ando’s architecture somehow offers redemption from the shallow spectacles of contemporary consumer culture. And yet… ladies and gentlemen, meet Morimoto…

On 10th Avenue, at Chelsea’s industrial edge, a red curtain partially covers a huge arch in the former Nabisco Baking Company’s brick warehouse. Morimoto’s location is not easily accessible, and, in the absence of overt signage, it is not immediately obvious that this is a restaurant (confirming that this is an “in the know” establishment). The red curtain is at once a dramatic opening and an exaggerated reference to traditional Japanese noren, an “open for business” curtain. Behind it are automatic doors which open to a desk/coat check at the edge of a multi-leveled, open space containing varied seating options. There are some long communal tables, as well as semi-private rooms, and, towards the rear are what appear to be low, Japanese-style tables but their accompanying sunken bench chairs give patrons the impression of kneeling down to eat without the discomfort (a concession to Westerners). Another major feature at the back of the space is the display of sushi chefs working away in front of the diners. While the color palette is muted overall, a shimmering wall composed of illuminated plastic water bottles provides a spectacular central focus (see photos above and below).

Concrete stairs going down to a subterranean bar are lined with prominent columns, also immediately recognizable as Ando’s signature concrete, but the columns are purely decorative: they clearly stop before reaching the ceiling. Above, the ceiling appears to be folding ripples of beige fabric, but on closer inspection, it turns out to be solid fiberglass (sprayed onto fabric). Furniture throughout the restaurant, designed by Ross Lovegrove, continues this playful tension between appearance and reality. Some chairs appear to be made of solid concrete, for example, but are made from foam, while other chairs appear light but are solid and heavy. Thus the interior engenders active participation by its inhabitants, whose perceptions are challenged even as they move a chair to sit down. The juxtaposition of Ando’s naked concrete and wood, with Lovegrove’s plastics, fiberglass and other high-tech materials (including the water bottles that comprise the central wall, designed by Lovegrove for Ty Nant) creates a complex sensual experience, but not an authentic engagement with raw materials.

Down the concrete stairs, the subterranean bar space continues the same themes, but the bar itself is particularly noteworthy (see photo above). Its surface contains skeletal leaves embalmed in a plastic resin (which reminded me of Shiro Kuramata’s 1988 Miss Blanche chair, with flowers similarly set into transparent resin), which, when illuminated with a blue light from above, appear as poetic remainders of nature, a further reminder of the completely artificial nature of the space and its experience. The interior as a whole is carefully lit with artificial lights, and there is no engagement with natural light (the few windows are covered with translucent screens). In addition to the lighting, club music adds to an atmosphere that seems closer to a nightclub than an exclusive restaurant.

As well as with Lovegrove, Ando collaborated on this project with New York designer Stephanie Goto, a former employee of the master of the theatrical restaurant, David Rockwell. But Morimoto’s other influential contributor was its owner, entrepreneur Stephen Starr. Starr began in the entertainment industry in Philadelphia, and currently owns over a dozen restaurants in Philadelphia, New York City and Atlantic City, all characterized by their theatrical atmosphere. Starr’s spectacular dining experiences include not only innovative menus and designer spaces (the first Morimoto restaurant opened in Philadelphia in 2001, was designed by Karim Rashid), but also distinctive designer websites, and in the case of Morimoto, Pentagram-designed graphics. The final player in the Morimoto experience is its namesake, head chef Masaharu Morimoto, best known as an Iron Chef from the television series, and famed for his signature Japanese dishes infused with European flavors or ingredients. Morimoto himself occasionally appears in the restaurant, blurring the boundaries between his (virtual) TV character and an (actual) sushi chef performing for diners at the rear of the restaurant (see photo below: the empty performance space).

This oscillation between the virtual and real is characteristic of Morimoto’s total design, and appears, on the surface at least, to be opposed to the tranquility and solemnity conventionally associated with Ando’s architecture. However, in an article entitled “Thinking in Ma”, Ando wrote that he believed in an architecture that could create “space of dynamic variance, space that pulsates in the gap between reality and fiction, between the rational and the illogical...” The interior space of Morimoto and its designed experience hold the dichotomies listed above – the fake vs. the real, the temporal vs. the timeless, the corporeal vs. the conceptual – in perpetual suspense. Ando concluded his essay with the idea that the Japanese concept “Ma” denotes a place of conflict, and in this way Morimoto operates as a performative stage upon which its inhabitants might actively engage with contradictions.


Ando, Tadao, “Thinking in Ma”, in El Croquis, 44+58, Tadao Ando issues, 2000, p.6.

Amelar, Sarah, “Record Interiors: Tadao Ando Morimoto Restaurant”, Architectural Record, vol. 194, no. 9, September 2006.

Baek, Jin, Nothingness: Tadao Ando’s Christian Sacred Space, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2009.

Heller, Steven, “Missing Component”, Metropolis, April 2008.

Innes, Christopher, Designing Modern America: From Broadway to Main Street, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005

Sparke, Penny, Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration, Acanthus Press, 2005.

The photos of the column, the bar, and the chair are by D.J. Huppatz. The photo of D.J. Huppatz in Morimoto is by the eminent design historian, Katarina Posch.

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