True collaboration isn’t merely about working closely together; it is about trust. Bar Agricole, located just south of Market Street in San Francisco, exemplifies the benefits of architects and artisans sharing responsibility for design.
From the beginning, the Bar Agricole, owned and conceived by Thaddeus Vogler, sought an architecture that illuminates the intersection of agriculture and urbanity, a contemporary rustic-ness or “modern-tavern.” In order to do this, he went beyond hiring an architect and enlisted many of the top artisan-fabricators in the area, offering up a few equity partnership contracts instead of following a more conventional design-bid-build model. Although unusual for a number of reasons, this business arrangement allowed design development and construction documentation to occur simultaneously in a collaborative way. Early in the process, fabricators were able to take on a more active role in the design and in some cases radically change a component of the project.
Among the host of fabricators brought into the job was Concreteworks. Based in Oakland, they offer design and fabrication services for both on-site and off-site applications. Originally commissioned to do only the sinks for the project, upon becoming equity partners they were also provided the opportunity to pour the floors, some outdoor seating, a few various site-cast elements, and, most significantly, the banquette seating.
While the design of the restaurant as a whole is commendable, it is this row of concrete banquette seating that stands out among the rest of the design gestures. Joshua Aidlin, of Aidlin Darling Design, envisioned the banquettes as a singular fluid ribbon working its way down the long axis of the restaurant. At first, it was thought that the banquettes would be fabricated from 3/8” plate steel, folded and bent into tight curves. However, when Concreteworks was added as an investor, Mark Rogero saw the bench design as an opportunity to push the limits of his trade, convincing both the client and the architect to let him try.
“When they said the cost of the banquettes is ‘x’ in steel, I said I can make those banquettes in Ductal [an ultra-high-performance concrete, Developed by Lafarge, Bouygues and Rhodia, that uses fibrous reinforcing]; and they said, ‘You can?’ I didn’t really know; I knew we would have to figure it out, but it was possible.”
Before the Bar Agricole banquettes, Rogero’s work with Ductal had mostly been in the creation of large decorative panels for a pop-up piece Concreteworks did at AIA conventions in San Francisco and Miami. The process for the panels could not be more different from what was to be required for the banquettes. The panels, although decorative, did not require much in the way of formwork; CNC milled foam was used and the pour itself was fairly straightforward.
The task Rogero and his team were now confronted with involved very slender forms and very tight radii. Staying true to the intent and overall form of the banquettes required that minimal changes to the design be made, which was possible only because of the intrinsic properties of the material and the knowledge of the fabrication team. The 3/8” plate steel became a single inch of concrete devoid of any steel reinforcing.
Here we should pause to ask what advantage was gained by transitioning from steel to concrete. Aesthetically, the concrete anchors the tall slender space, acting as a perfect counterpoint to the other concrete elements inserted throughout the tavern—giving weight to contrast the lightness of the glass skylights and reclaimed wood. Practically, the advantage isn’t so apparent. Up front, it seems ludicrous to pour 13 1-inch thick benches out of concrete. Fiscally, Ductal is fifteen times the price of conventional concrete, and, with the amount of steel that would be required to reinforce conventional concrete; you might as well stick with steel.
The advantage comes in labor savings. Bending steel into such complex geometries with high tolerances would make sense if only a few benches needed to be constructed. In this case, the cost of labor would remain high throughout the fabrication in steel, while the labor with concrete drops off significantly after the formwork has been designed and the first pour has been made.
The physical casting of each banquette was largely carried out without any hiccups. The precision of the formwork (fabricated by Nor Cal Metal Fabricators), and the physical make-up of the material all aided with the process, but by far the most significant contributing factor was the knowledge base possessed by Rogero and his staff.
Beginning with foam, Concreteworks created a series of models and formwork studies to understand any discrepancies between the form and the fabrication process. A few changes in this step had to be made, and the initial 3d models were sent back to Aidlin Darling with Rogero’s suggestions. Through this process, it became clear that foam formwork would not be sufficient to hold up to the intense hydrostatic pressure created during the pour, and it was decided to spend the time and money on a single steel mold. Upon receiving the final formwork, they made adjustments to the material matrix and poured the first piece.
Concreteworks has been doing artisan concrete work for twenty years, and within that time they have encountered problems similar to those faced with the banquettes. All that embedded knowledge surfaced as the team prepped the molds for pouring. Creating the gasketing or understanding the best funnel to use becomes almost instinctual. But we must not forget the amount of work that went into the front end of the project: testing out different mold options, full-scale formal mock-ups, and intense discussions with the engineer all allowed for a smoother back end. An architect cannot simulate this body of knowledge, and although Aidlin Darling was involved throughout the entire process, to their credit, they knew when to let go and trust the expertise of their fabricator.
Historically speaking, the relative simplicity of building technologies allowed master builders and renaissance architects to exist. Our current building industry has become so rich with various materials and specialized construction methods that the all-knowing architect has become a thing of the past. Although not something to mourn over, it does mean we should question the residues found in our architectural modus operandi.
It is difficult to keep up with the rapid march of technology. The difference between the vast amount of materials available and the relatively common materials used extensively in the building sector only serves to illustrate the sluggishness of adopting new material practice, and shows a lack of depth in material knowledge amongst designers and builders alike.
Sure, the Bar Agricole made use of an innovative material, but that isn’t the reason for its significance. The significance lies in the professional relationship between architect and fabricator. Without the trust, without the sharing of control on Aidlin Darling’s part, Concreteworks would have never been able to push the boundaries of their craft. The innovation would have remained only in the material itself, but instead this professional relationship allowed for an innovative application as well.
Pushing the envelope isn’t analogous to changing its form; it also means we question our assumptions. Concreteworks is one of many fabricators who have built an entire career around a single material, so why not let them explore their own craft within the conceptual framework established by the architect? Tapping the tacit knowledge of experienced fabricators doesn’t come solely from novel designs; it arises from truly collaborative efforts that operate outside of traditional hierarchies. Although perhaps unintuitive and scary, there are benefits to letting go.