James Haldane visits the pop up diner which is decorated with and serves only tinned seafood
A century and a half after Wagner popularised the concept of the multi-sensory Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, architecture still rarely involves itself in the epicurean world. Many practices design restaurants, of course, but it’s rare to find a firm willing to shatter the client/practitioner divide by initiating such a project. With a noted record of radicalism, however, Amanda Levete Architects has decided to dip its toe into the fishy water. Tincan, a temporary pop-up restaurant, opens to the public this month in London’s Soho.
Novelty enough, surely? Seemingly not - the unusual menu consists exclusively of tinned seafood.
Although perhaps not to everyone’s gastronomic taste, the restaurant’s design aesthetic does signify a welcome break from the clichéd melange of unpainted OSB and jam jar cocktails still plaguing London’s foodies. Conceived to operate for only six months, AL_A has collaborated with a host of partners to design every aspect of the space from scratch, from furniture to lighting. Could this unusual approach represent the latest innovation in architectural R&D or is Tincan simply a happy indulgence in the face of that most familiar foe - the unbuilt dream project?
Either way, the story behind the restaurant’s inspiration is enjoyably fanciful. It begins in Lisbon, where the firm is currently overseeing the construction of its design for a new waterfront cultural centre. In their lunchtime wanderings, the team discovered a former fishing tackle shop near their site office that had been transformed into a small but vibrant seafood restaurant. Captivated by the handsome graphics of the tins on offer, they began bringing samples back to AL_A’s London office. Soon, “what started as lunch quickly became an idea, and subsequently a new project.” A two-prong plan emerged to create a space to bring together the world’s finest seafood and to elevate the humble tin to an object of desire.
How has that vision been materialised? Tincan stands between a Pizza Express and a burrito restaurant just off Carnaby Street - the nexus of 1960s Mod and hippie fashion. On the surface of it, the tiny unit is an unpromising situation, but AL_A have a history of drawing out hidden potential. Five minutes walk away is their project on the similarly inauspicious Hills Place - a celebrated intervention with a sculptural façade inspired by the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana.
The firm has achieved a similar metamorphosis here. The rounded shapes of thirty different tin designs, imported from around the world, vividly punctuate the street windows and glossy black interiors walls. Ranging from fluoro-orange to monochrome sobriety, they anchor the space to its mission. Bare tables reference East Asian minimalism with their low height and black simplicity. Produced in collaboration with Portuguese company Iduna, they represent the latest episode of AL_A’s rumbling interest in furniture. Last year the practice was shortlisted in the competition to design the new Bodleian Library chair.
‘I balanced this with the Icelandic delicacy of some smoked cod liver pate - the foie gras of the sea’
The flying saucer light fittings are also bespoke, combining OLED technology from LG with the expertise of Atrium Lighting. They pick up the metallic jewel tones of the tins, adding polish and heightening the sense of a break from typical pop-up frippery. Overall, the experience feels thoughtful and edited. The exotic dishes are served stylishly in their tins, all of which are also available to buy sealed. The thalassic gourmand is well served - I got the impression that as much care has gone into balancing the features of menu as conceiving the interior.
So, following the sad revelation that the AR is excluded from the quid pro quo of a free dinner, what did I choose to spend my money (read ‘expense account’) on? My meal began with a tin of squid, served in its own tannic - almost chocolaty - ink. On the advice of the maître d’, I balanced this with the Icelandic delicacy of some smoked cod liver pate - the foie gras of the sea, apparently. The real epicurean treat, however, was an off-menu serving of tuna carpaccio, an uncooked amuse-bouche cured in the style of Parma ham. All this was washed down with a bottle of seawater beer. Better than it sounds, I promise.
Eccentric as it is, there is a strategy behind all this. The restaurant enables AL_A to unify in a single project the practice’s disparate interests - graphics, interiors and product and furniture design. Beyond this scale of its ambition, the undertaking also stands out for the tangibility of its creators’ passion. I was halfway through my tin of squid when I realised I was being served by served by Maximiliano Arrocet, one of AL_A’s four directors and lead on the Lisbon project. His infectious enthusiasm left me convinced that six months is surely too brief an inning for the restaurant. Somewhere between its urbane originality and fishy offerings, Tincan magically dissolves the boundary between food and form.