Touch & go

When I first met the influential Finnish architect and architectural theorist Juhani Pallasmaa in 1995, he expressed his dislike of automatic door openers because they stripped away the tactile engagement of a building offered by the door handle. It was a comment that immediately resonated as I had only recently visited Alvar Aalto’s delightful Säynätsalo Town Hall (1951) just outside Jyväskylä, Finland. Aalto’s original, hand-forged metal door handles wrapped in a tight weave of rawhide strips provided just the kind of affirming relationship of which Pallasmaa spoke. I had also recently toured the remarkable new (1987) headquarters of Amsterdam’s Nederlandsche Middenstandsback (now ING), for which architect Ton Alberts had designed a 70-foot-long bronze stair rail pitted with linked “pools” through which a stream of water ran. Thus, as you ascended or descended the staircase, your fingers could trail though the cool water, their tips gently messaged by the rough base of the stream bed.

Both Aalto’s door handles and Alberts’ stair rail produce moments of soothing haptic sensations, defined by Nancy Gesimondo and Jim Postell in their recent book Materiality and Interior Construction as the “physical and phenomenological experience of touching and interacting with materials, particularly experienced through the hands and feet.” 

The significance of the tactile experience takes on a more functional role at Quebec City’s Restaurant Ô 6ième sens (a.k.a Restaurant dans le noir), designed by the local firm of Amiot Bergeron Architectes. It is not just that the restaurant features gourmet dining in absolute darkness, albeit augmented with a lit section that serves as both an after-dinner drinks and conversation lounge and a budget-conscious New York–style bistro during lunch. In addition, all 10 members of the serving staff for both components of the restaurant are blind graduates of the city’s Capital Hotel School. Although owned by partners Jean-François Lessard, Patrick Vézina and Gaétan Paquet, Ô 6ième sens (“sixth sense”) was established with the assistance of two not-for-profit foundations that receive 10 per cent of profits: MIRA, providing guide dogs for the sight impaired; and Caecitas, a job-creation investment organization for what is one of Canada’s most severely employment-disadvantaged groups.  

Of course, the sixth sense is most often defined as keen intuition, as perception achieved without the five physical senses of which touch is one. But for the waiters to function efficiently, touch along with spatial predictability is crucial. In the 50-seat dark room, explains principal Louise Amiot during our interview, the layout had to be simple and rigorously orthogonal; while in the lit space a carefully constructed “linear landscape” unobtrusively separating clients from staff was required. Not incidentally, the idea of a contoured landscape came easily to the partners, who prefer mass and volume to light transparency and have completed over 15 parks for Ville de Beauport.    

The key to meeting the unique challenge posed by the staff’s lack of sight is a dedicated “service alley” that cleaves straight through the elongated space of the restaurant’s lit section. Along one side of this working runway, separated by a metre-high wall, are the client tables; along the front section of the opposite side, a steel I-beam–framed bar stretches. Toward the back end of the bar and behind a perpendicular cross “street” running to the dark room is an open window to the kitchen through which orders are received. While braille numbering on the low wall guides servers to their tables, the primary use of texture is found in the flooring: it is the change in floor materials signals to staff where they are. The serving lane is epoxied concrete with the exception of the bar work area, which is signaled by Amtigo’s Mirra metallic vinyl tiles with a faux metal plate relief. (The bar is computerized, which permits co-owner Vézina, who is himself blind, to serve as the bartender.) The same textured tiles are used to delineate the cross street that penetrates the dark room while carpeting indicates service lanes in this area of the restaurant.

By no means, however, have the architects neglected the visual senses of the overwhelming majority of sighted clients who frequent the restaurant. Despite the proverbial parsimonious budget, the lit component, says Amiot, is intended as a sensual mix of found industrial chic and simple but bold gestures. The latter includes an imposing, inclined plane of grey, wood-grained concrete panels dominating one entire wall, and a long, canted white panel suspended in the otherwise open ceiling that helps define the seating area. Against a colour datum of black and white, bright green is splashed about on smaller walls and on the upholstered banquettes. The intended environmental significance of green is made explicit by the nature videos streamed on a line of screens high on one wall. Rough, bleached wood roundels act as coffee and end tables in the vibrantly red-carpeted rear lounge.

But what will probably remain in most visitors’ consciousness in this increasingly dog-centric society is the lounge-off-the-lounge. Behind mirrored glass, patrons can see the staff’s guide dogs comfortably, and patiently, waiting for their masters to complete their shifts.  cI