Computer-aided design may allow architects to imagine wildly original structures and geometries, but without a client willing to pay a Frank Gehry–sized budget, their designs will often remain digital dreams. But in Mexico City, a team of architects willing to experiment with fabrication techniques proved that making a big impact doesn’t require big bucks when they created the multidimensional steel lattice that wraps the Tori Tori Restaurant and Lounge.
Tori Tori’s owner, a Japanese expatriate, wanted to open a new location in an aging 1920s house in Polanco, an upscale, mostly low-rise neighborhood of walled urban mansions, foreign embassies, and museums. A traditionalist when it comes to his native country’s cuisine, he envisioned a calm urban escape anchored by a Japanese garden and koi pond.
Tori Tori regular Michel Rojkind, founding partner of local firm Rojkind Arquitectos, suggested a contemporary interpretation that would reflect the restaurant’s globe-trotting owner and patrons. Rojkind then partnered with Héctor Esrawe, an industrial designer, friend, and regular collaborator, who would design the restaurant’s interior and furniture.
Surrounded by ivy-covered walls ranging in height from 10 to 23 feet, the 6,700-square-foot building tucks into the back corner of a 9,000-square-foot lot. The wall’s entrance is discreet: a single door with a small sign engraved with a Japanese rooster, Tori Tori’s logo. “We wanted to keep it low key on the outside—something very simple that wouldn’t break ambience of the neighborhood,” Rojkind says.
Once inside the wall, patrons are immediately greeted by the restaurant’s sculptural, two-story steel façade. The striking feature, created by a pair of 24-feet-tall lattices, weaves across the building walls like rivulets of quicksilver.
Inspired by the client’s desire for a water feature, Rojkind and firm partner Gerardo Salinas modeled more than 20 different lattice designs on their studio’s desktop CNC laser cutter before achieving the look they wanted: a pattern evoking the rippling tranquility of a koi pond. “The façade takes away the building’s boxy effect and makes it feel more dynamic,” Rojkind says.
The façade becomes a giant optical illusion, Salinas says: “Your eye is constantly adjusting to pattern.” The two steel planar surfaces, each 3 inches thick and standing about 8 inches apart, are flat metal sheets. But the meticulously conceived templates of perforations, which vary slightly from one plane to the other, create a moiré effect of three-dimensionality and make light and shadows dance.
At night, the façade’s character changes. Blue uplights between the lattices illuminate the building exterior, creating a psychedelic effect of a luminous spider web.
To avoid breaking the project budget on a custom metal façade, Rojkind turned to local labor and off-the-shelf materials. His team divided the digital design into 4-feet-by-8-feet sections, the standard size of a light-gauge steel plate. To reduce costs further, they built the lattices as a hollow structure using 1/2-inch-thick plates. Stabilized by stainless steel tie rods at the roof line and at 10 feet above the ground, the freestanding, lightweight façade meets the local structural and seismic requirements.
Using Rojkind’s digital files, local fabrication shop Zinbel spent three months milling more than 150 steel plates on a water-jet laser cutter. It then hand-welded the cut panels into hollow assemblies and filled them with expanding foam insulation. A crew of Oaxacan metal craftsmen, led by local Pablo Reyes, spent four months erecting the panels on site, welding the foam-filled sections, and meticulously grinding all joints. At one point, Rojkind says, 45 crew members were climbing, welding, and banging on the lattice.
“It’s a very handcrafted façade,” Salinas says. Coated with gray automotive paint—light gray for the inner lattice and a darker shade for the outer—each lattice becomes a strong and stiff seamless unit, betraying no hollowness when tapped.
Rojkind, who has worked with large, well-known architectural metal fabricators in the past, utilized local resources to achieve his vision on a tight budget. “Digital design is important to us,” he says, “but I love using local fabricators.”