Commissioning a piece of innovative architecture is a complex gamble: it takes time, and there are no promises, except that there will be a cost. But the payoff can last a lifetime and beyond. Grant van Gameren was ready to roll the dice. "At the end of the day, I want to build a place that's going to be around for 100 years," the chef and restaurateur said. "I want a place where people will petition if it's going to be torn down and sold. It may be a stupid business choice, but for me… "
His words trailed off under the grind of a drill, as woodworkers fastened an elaborately cut panel of mahogany onto the ceiling of his new Bar Raval. It was two weeks before the opening, and construction was nowhere near done. Mr. van Gameren was serving as general contractor in the front room when he wasn't curing jamon in the kitchen.
With him was the designer Alex Josephson, whose firm Partisans designed the space. "It's going to be the most beautiful bar in Toronto, full stop," Mr. Josephson said. "You'll see."
And it is. The bar, which opened a week ago, represents a significant next move for the chef but even more so for the designers: It's the kind of space that, though modest in scale, could torque the culture of the city through sheer ambition. Most restaurants or bars in the city occupy spaces that are disposable. Mr. van Gameren and his partners, with upstart energy, have a different idea; they're using adventurous design and craftsmanship to build a place that will have the presence of an institution, and might just become one.
It's an idiosyncratic fusion of Spanish Art Nouveau with contemporary digital tools: Think Gaudi with computers, tattoos and a love for the Wu-Tang Clan. (Mr. van Gameren's partners, the studious and heavily tatted bartenders Robin Goodfellow and Mike Webster, are Wu diehards. Their bar's custom drip trays feature the Wu logo.)
Mr. Josephson and his partner Pooya Baktash are, like the chef, young men who have tried to buck the hierarchy of their professions and express a bold, personal vision. Here, it comes together.
The room, a former restaurant on College Street near Bathurst, still has its tin ceiling, but it's covered by vines – or tattoos? – of mahogany that form a sort of chandelier. This wood is sculpted into voluptuous bulges and scored with an intricate pattern of lines generated by computer code. The bar itself is solid, oiled to a lustrous finish; a little terraced protrusion on top that evokes architectural models, or the stump of an ancient hardwood tree.
Late one night this week, the bar was packed. Laser-cut steel screens covered much of the windows and relegated the outside world to a dim, cold memory. It was loud, but the sound bounced comfortably around the curvy room; the crowd, since there were almost no seats, mixed convivially; the cocktail theatre at the bar looked spectacular in the warm gloaming that the architects had engineered.
Passion created this place. Few Toronto restaurants have serious design ambition, which makes commercial sense; few Torontonians have adventurous tastes in architecture, so why spend money and time on a room that might not appeal to everyone? Mr. van Gameren's Bar Isabel, with its custom-made tile and regular visits from mural artist Charlie Murray, rejects that logic, and has been stratospherically successful. In 2015, he could build a dive bar and cash in on his reputation. Instead, he told me, he wants "to make a mark on the city in a different way," and the budget – the woodwork alone cost more than $200,000 – is worth it. "We don't do it for everyone," Mr. van Gameren says of the bar. "We do it for ourselves, and hope people enjoy it."
Mr. van Gameren has become a patron of innovative, contemporary architecture. Which is odd, because in its concept, Raval belongs more to Barcelona than Toronto.
Open from breakfast through to last call, it serves coffee, breakfast tapas and erudite cocktails, the latter crafted by Mr. Goodfellow and Mr. Webster. Yet while every pintxo bar I've visited in Barcelona was in a nondescript old building – they're bars – this one fills its vintage brick container with something radically new. "This is our interpretation of that sort of space in Barcelona," Mr. Josephson says. "It's something to bring Toronto design into the 21st – and the 22nd – century."
The chef, looking for his next project after the success of Bar Isabel, took a trip to Spain and came back with a love for Gaudi. A mutual friend connected him with Mr. Josephson and Partisans, who he asked to design the most amazing bar in the world.
Partisans was founded by Mr. Josephson, who grew up in Forest Hill, and Iranian émigré Mr. Baktash, after they met at architecture school at the University of Waterloo in 2010. Mr. Josephson had been bouncing in and out of the profession for a decade – trying to pursue a career as a sculptor, and working for the architect Massimiliano Fuksas in Rome – before finding his way back to Canada.
He and Mr. Baktash, who emigrated in 2007 after studying at Azad University, became fast friends. During the economic downturn, they had trouble finding paying work, Mr. Baktash said, and started designing and building interior projects themselves. (Mr. Josephson and Mr. Baktash, like many others, are frustrated at the long and Kafkaesque process of becoming a registered architect in this province; they are both working on it.) Jonathan Friedman, a South African expat and a licensed architect with a decade of experience in Toronto, is now the third partner in the firm.
They have, thanks to Mr. Josephson, the ability to hustle up work – but they push those opportunities much harder than most designers. The office is working at a high level of aesthetic ambition. Parametric design, the idea of using software to elaborate a geometric idea into complex forms, is fashionable among young designers. But it rarely produces beautiful rooms. At Raval, Partisans used their own faculties to imagine swooshy forms that are beautiful and functional, then used digital tools to produce them and to add a surface layer of ornament. "When I hear 'parametric,' it's just a tool," Mr. Josephson says. "If you don't know how to use it, you're not very good."
Mr. Josephson worked with one of the few great parametric designers, Mr. Fuksas, and has learned some lessons. Last fall, a small sauna that they designed for a Georgian Bay cottage made the rounds on the global architecture blogs: a box, nondescript on the outside, whose interior is lined on all sides with sinuous bulges of softwood. Built and assembled in Toronto by the millworkers MCM – who also worked on Raval – it photographs like a young architect's dream come to life, executed at a high level and made solid in cedar.
But not many people had seen the work. With Raval, they will. That is a gift to them and to the city. The young designers are working now on the retail spaces within Union Station.
Other large projects will, likely, follow. Will they be as good?
If the clients are ambitious enough, maybe – and perhaps everyone will win. "Grant was uncompromising, and that's very rare," Mr. Josephson says. "But I think he sees the potential for the architecture to generate a business model. People say that's anecdotal. Well, it's real. It's not a question that people enjoy being in places that are special, and I don't understand why that can't be embraced." Cut through the crowd at Raval and put your hand on the bar – it's hard to resist – and you will feel something special, solid and maybe lasting.