Inside Partisans’ Timeless Approach to Innovative Design

Bar Raval

You might say award-winning Toronto-based architecture studio PARTISANS is known for innovative designs both in smaller-scale spaces like Toronto restaurants Bar Raval and Gusto 501, and large-scale projects like the Han Gang Wishbone in Seoul, Toronto’s Union Station, and the Orbit community in Innisfil, Ontario but cofounder Alex Josephson insists that it’s the pursuit of timelessness, not innovation, that drives the firm’s unique vision. 

We recently chatted with Josephson about his approach to design, how physical spaces affect your experience, and the importance of restaurants. Read on for all that and to see why he says most people might say we at Acid League are out of our fucking mind.

Let’s talk about your approach to design generally—what makes a project successful from an architectural standpoint?

There was a very famous architect named Aldo Rossi who talked about architecture and its ability to adapt and that the most successful buildings and the most successful designs—the most timeless—designs are able to adapt and over time they’re reused in different ways or they change the way they’re used. We are an architecture firm that sees ourselves as a research and innovation practice. To achieve timelessness I believe you have to rise above your time. You have to contribute something that is improbable in your time. And that act of bringing the improbable to life defies expectations. That’s essential to being innovative in architecture. We combine that with a social and aesthetic ethos that really comes back to our name, Partisans. Partisans fight for a cause. 

We fight for many causes. Is this the right way, am I good enough, are we good enough? Are we doing the best we possibly can? Is this thoughtful? Does this add something not only to the discussion of architecture and not only how it’s practiced and designed—but does it do that for the client as well? We’re constantly fighting for these answers and that means that we don’t accept the status quo, that means that we invent our own tools, it means that we’re constantly changing and evolving our processes. That goes to what I think potentially could be timeless architecture. 

–Gusto 501, a new restaurant in Toronto.

You work on a lot of projects, but among them are some really special restaurant designs. One of our favorites is Bar Raval—perhaps because the curving solid wood surfaces that nod to Gaudí feel, as you say, timeless. Do you see that project as a successful execution of your vision?

Timelessness is such a funny thing. Do I think Bar Raval is timeless? Yeah, I think that it’s made with solid mahogany which is a very precious material. I think that it will house, in a practical and functional manner, multiple potential restaurant or bar owners, as long as human beings are consuming liquids in glasses. And if you look at Vienna or Prague or London, some of the most celebrated public spaces are restaurants. You’ve got pubs in England that are 500 years old.

Bar Raval

–Bar Raval

My uncle is a very well known foodie and he’s always said to me, ‘you can’t eat ambiance, you can’t eat aesthetics.’ And I always say to him, ‘you’re wrong, you can!’ It’s another one of the senses that is experiencing the food in some time and space. So I have a fundamental disagreement with him—as much as I adore him—about how and why we consume food and drink. If we didn’t care about where and who and when and how, we would all just live at home and drink Soylent. And as long as human beings desire more, then the quality of the space and the journey of that experience is going to be important.

So how do you think the space at Bar Raval, for example, affects the experience of eating and drinking there?

If you don’t have a story no one’s gonna care. And frankly, aesthetics, on their own, without any kind of base in reason, story, or narrative is just wasted. It’s just someone with too much money and not enough ideas. In the case of Raval, it was conceived in the tradition of Spanish modernism which goes back to Gaudí and the baroque traditions of design. So there’s a story and a narrative that drives the nature of the space, which is this Spanish tapas bar. If you don’t have an idea, if there’s no concept, no narrative driving what you’re doing, then it’s going to be necessarily divorced from whatever’s happening in the space. 

Is restaurant design something you seek out because you see that connection between the space and the experience of dining?

We probably could have done many more restaurants but most of the people who asked us weren’t willing to give the time to do it right and didn’t have a story. They were just building a restaurant that serves a certain kind of food—there was no story. 

It’s about people. You have to have special people who want to do a special thing. In almost every context there is a way to do something extraordinary. Our clients are really special and they’ve given us opportunities that most clients don’t give their architects.

So the work that we’ve done has been the result, not just of us and our philosophy, but of the quality of the people and their experience and desires in the world compared to others. 

You talk about Acid League, and what Acid League represents—the capacity for someone to think about vinegar on a cultural level. You’re doing a blog and a magazine? How many companies that do vinegar have a magazine? Most people would say you’re fucking out of your mind. Whereas, anybody who recognizes quality, and who understands the importance of brand and ingredients and all these other things would say ‘that’s really great, and I want that.’ The same goes for a space. 

Gusto 501

–Exterior of Gusto 501 in Toronto

Obviously, right now restaurants are having a particularly hard time and the experience of eating is largely divorced from the physical space for the time being. Has that changed how you think about restaurants and food in general?

You know, I started thinking of this butcher shop Ghadir in Scarborough. He started with a butcher shop and he started making shawarma, and everything was so good that he started making more and then he opened up a second shawarma shop next door, so he expanded the butcher to add groceries, and then he started a fish side next to that, and people loved the fish, and then he said, ‘I can cook the fish.’ So then he started cooking the fish so he’s got a fish restaurant, a fish shop, a supermarket, a butcher, and a shawarma shop. And it’s incredible. So, as much as you can go to Bar Raval and have a hamburguesa and a pisco sour, and have this amazing experience, you can also go to Scarborough and have an incredibly authentic, totally Toronto unique experience. With fabulous food. And just because it doesn’t have CNCed wood doesn’t mean it’s not an aesthetic experience. 

Restaurants are really important. Food is really important. It tells you so much about a culture, and we have such a special culture right here right now, we need to make sure we create more and more opportunities for people to begin a life by creating a food industry based business. That has been part of the bedrock of immigrant culture in Canada, food. Especially Toronto. The quality of a culture is very much determined by its respect for food and the people who make it.

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