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Pio Pio Restaurant by Sebastián Mariscal, New York, USA

Sebastián Mariscal uses dramatic materials to submerge diners in the atmosphere of the Pio Pio Restaurant. Photography by Paúl Rivera

Sebastián Mariscal understands atmosphere. In a recent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, his work contrasted sharply with the other rooms, providing an experiential break that submerged museum-goers in the space.

A similar experience awaits at Mariscal’s recently opened Pio Pio restaurant in New York. The Peruvian chain commissioned Mariscal to design the interior of its new restaurant in the neighbourhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. The first thing to note about the interior is his use of dramatic materials. From the street-level entrance, diners enter a box of rough, recycled wood punctured by an extruded Carrara marble hostess desk. From here, they move past a long bar of the same marble and wood panelling, catching a glimpse of something unexpected at the end: a wall of horizontal branches. On approach, the space opens up to provide a view down into the main atrium, one level below.

The large room is dominated by thousands of these branches covering the walls and ceiling, with rough-cast concrete forming a secondary structure. It’s as visually arresting as it is atmospheric.

Developing a sequential experience was paramount to the design strategy and Mariscal has succeeded admirably. ‘We wanted to capitalise on the surprise of finding an underground space,’ he explains. Surprise encounters are common in the work of Mariscal, who made his studio debut at 14 under his father, Mexican architect Raúl Mariscal. ‘We wanted to detach this project from the standard approach to interior space and create something that is more architectural space, like creating an exterior from the ground up.’

This narrative continues through the atrium. After surveying the room from above, diners are temporarily submerged under the tall concrete walls of the stair before they emerge at lower level, the drama of the room re-asserting itself with its grand scale and sheer quantity of branches.

These branches, along with the rough concrete forms, give the space an aesthetic that forms a bridge between the restaurant’s neighbouring sleek Manhattan galleries and something darker, more primal. ‘We wanted the rough materials to connect to the outside, providing a modern way to connect to Latin American imperfection and success in blending inside and outside,’ says Mariscal.

To realise this goal, the designers used recycled wood for the formwork, deliberately leaving in stray nails and rough edges to accentuate the horizontal banding and texture inscribed in the concrete. According to Mariscal, the concrete structures were used to add a feeling of volume. Beyond making what would otherwise feel like a very boxy space more complex, the formwork adds to the effect of the room as a discrete landscape, removed from the outside world and ‘discovered’ by users of the space - almost to a degree of teleological fetish - which is accentuated by jungle-like branches.

In sourcing sustainable branches, the architects settled on ocotillo, a Mexican wood that regenerates individual branches as they’re harvested. These branches proved to be one of the most labour-intensive parts of the project. They were meant to be dried and shipped from Mexico, but the process was taking too long and they were shipped before curing was finished. On site, the project team had to complete the curing and debarking, which created an unexpected hurdle in construction.

The end result strikes an admirable balance between drama and seriousness. Mariscal’s studio imbues the space with a minimal reserve offset by the warm and rough aesthetic of the almost-ruined concrete and sticks. It also creates an environment that is about managing views and complicating circulation. So, what is essentially a large box in a basement assumes the properties of a remote landscape, removed from Hell’s Kitchen above.

Architect Sebastián Mariscal, San Diego, USA
Project architect Jeff Svitak
Project coordinator Carlos de la Mora
Structural engineer Rizwan Salam
Services engineer Lana Naoum

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