March 23, 2020
A Restaurant by Olson Kundig Recedes into the Background
Cladding of black brick, glass brick, and steel conceal rather than broadcast the Austin eatery’s program.
Last spring, a dark, brooding new building appeared on a nondescript corner in downtown Austin. Made from black brick, glass brick, and steel—rugged materials that speak only of themselves—the mysterious structure offers little to passersby in the way of disclosing its program. At lulls in the day, there is simply no way to tell what it is, unless one squints to read the small brass plate near the blind door: Comedor, a contemporary Mexican restaurant.
Designed by Olson Kundig, Comedor is committed to serving inventive dishes drawn from the deep well of our southern neighbor’s culinary history. The 4,700-square-foot hot spot is the latest in a series of Austin eateries challenging expectations of Mexican food that reduce it to platters of tacos and enchiladas. The architecture—the Seattle firm’s first project in Austin—follows suit, offering a counterpoint to local hospitality postures.
It does this by holding the context at bay. The ground on which Comedor stands was previously a narrow parking lot at a major crosstown thoroughfare, where food trucks would congregate at night. Austin does not have much of a street café culture, and its downtown core is really a vertically oriented car suburb with an ever-growing number of glass high-rises resting on imposing parking decks. The urban environs, in other words, didn’t offer much in the way of inspiration.
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“Austin is awesome on so many levels, but this part of town is going through a transition and is still really aggressive with vehicular traffic,” explains Tom Kundig, cofounder and design principal of Olson Kundig. “For that reason, we knew we couldn’t open up to the street, and instead did something veiled and protected, but translucent so you’re aware of what’s happening inside and outside.”
This protective veil, which turns the corner and defines Comedor’s hard but glistening exterior, consists of black brick walls spliced with large sections of glass brick, which also read as black except at night. The color choice is bold, given that Austin is a very sunny place that is also very hot most of the year, with summer temperatures climbing above 100 degrees with greater and greater frequency. For Kundig, the potential heat gain, and the minor discomfort arising from it, were worth the trade-off if it meant being able to capitalize on the certain phenomenological effects inherent in black.
“Black tends to recede the architecture in a sense, taking the shadows and details and letting them blend to make the building more elegant, and more recessive,” says Kundig. It also allows the more dynamic but transient elements of the city—people and, yes, cars—“to pop and become more important than the building,” he adds.
Standoffish as Comedor may be from the exterior, inside, the architecture is imbued with real generosity. Kundig’s Mexican joint rewards visitors’ every caress, beginning at the entrance, which is on comparatively calm Colorado Street: A blackened steel door of considerable heft opens, with Teflon-like smoothness, to a brass reception stand set in a dark alcove. The entry sequence requires two 90-degree turns to enter the dining room, keeping the interior completely protected from the street. The double-height dining room gives way to divided-light factory windows in its upper reaches, which allow sunlight to filter down into the space while also providing neck-craning views of the Austin skyline. Olson Kundig designed all of the furniture, including hickory-topped tables and banquettes, and chairs and barstools of leather and bent steel. The bar is marble and the bottles of booze rest on shelves lining one of the glass-brick walls, so that at night the trailing lights of passing cars wink and sparkle through two layers of distorting glass and colored liquid—a mesmerizing display that adds to the pleasantly disorienting effects of the mezcal and tequila cocktails.
If Austin has one culinary tradition taken quite seriously by all, it’s outdoor patio dining. Comedor responds with a patio of its own, a narrow but nonetheless comfortable space planted with palo verde and acacia trees and graced by a small fountain. The patio is backed by a buff-colored brick wall, 100 years old and plastered over on the lot line, left from a previous teardown. Olson Kundig decided to keep it, to expose it and let ivy grow over it, decided in fact that it was the local fabric the firm wished Comedor to embrace. The dining room opens to the patio (and not, pointedly, to the street) via four retractable guillotine window walls. The manual hand cranks—housed inside so as not to grow hot in the sun—are something of a trope in Olson Kundig’s work, but Kundig insists that they aren’t used frivolously or fetishistically. “I’m not so much fascinated by devices as by what they can do,” he says. “They really allow people to modify their environment, to move walls and change the dynamic between inside and outside in the Japanese farmhouse tradition.”
Whether the impetus was provocation or a contextual exercise, Comedor answers the question “What if Olson Kundig did a Mexican restaurant?” That is to say, it is less the product of a studied response to program or brand and more an exhibition of a fully realized design talent doing what it does best: creating spaces that are simultaneously raw and refined and capable of accommodating almost anything.
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