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The Mill and the Gloss

Architect Sameep Padora believes in form that functions, as we can see in Zenzi Mills – the latest in a series of chic watering holes at Lower Parel in Mumbai, says Maria Louis.

No matter from which angle you look at it, the ‘blob’ on the face of the à la mode Zenzi Mills is its most arresting feature. When Sameep Padora, the equally trendy architect responsible for giving the rundown mill space a facelift, christens it thus, you know just what he’s talking about.

“Zenzi Mills is a bar and makes no pretensions about it. Expecting the space to fill up most days, we anticipated that the counter would completely disappear behind the plethora of people,” he discloses. “So we designed our focal piece floating above it – a blob containing the bar display.”

Padora’s box is full of surprises. Indeed a focal point, the free-flowing self-lit sculptural form snaking in mid-air above the barflies catches your eye as soon as you enter the long and narrow factory shed. Turning from the bar display into a light fixture and eventually into a handrail for the second installation piece, the staircase, it is functional art at its best.

Designed at the end of the double-loaded bar with seamlessly-fused parallel flights and a landing that’s the extension of the counter, the dramatic staircase transforms those heading for the fine dine area on the upper level into participants in a ‘ramp walk’ while those seated at the bar become their audience.

When Matan Schabracq of Zenzi Mills first saw the space, the factory was still running. “From the time I entered the shed, I loved the industrial look,” he recalls.  At his introductory meeting with Padora, he was won over by the architect’s love of life. “Besides being a great designer, he has travelled the world and is interested in more than his job. We (Schabracq and partners Anil Kably, Vishal Thakker, Sharad Mathur and Georgy Bedier de Prairie) told him that the rough industrial look had to be maintained as far as possible – but without the space looking dirty.”

The brief was very specific, as the partners were looking for a hardcore bar space where even when you’re walking in or coming down the stairs, the focus remains on the action at the bar. Since people who are seated are focused on those walking down, in a sense it becomes interactive. While Padora was given carte blanche with the aesthetics and design, Schabracq and general manager Emiliano were involved in the layout – which had a huge impact on the design.

Apart from the industrial vibe of Lower Parel and the fact that creative companies are settling there, Schabracq is delighted that the unimposing facade of Zenzi Mills does not give away what lies within.

Agreeing that the bar is the highlight, he reveals that he and his partners held long discussions after professionals advised them against placing it the middle, as it would become too chaotic when crowded. “Against all advice, we stuck to the idea. The interaction, the flirting and the eye contact are essentials for a good night out, and our bar stimulates these sensations. We also have the best sound system in the world, Funktion One, which is a great advantage.”

The two-storeyed structure was in bad shape when Padora went to examine the site. “We wanted to connect both floors at some point,” discloses the architect. A bit of the slab was cut out – so as soon as you enter, you experience this double height volume and see the sculptural staircase. Acknowledging that the staircase was a complex bit of design, Padora adds: “We achieved it by using a kind of symbiotic structure, where the cantilever for the bar level landing supports the cantilever of the stairway flight with guy wires (steel cables) to minimise sway.”

Since the project had to be executed on a tight budget, the design team figured out a way of creating the main installation piece by using regular plywood that was put through a relatively inexpensive industrial cutting process to generate the pieces that became the blobs. “I think the use of wood lends warmth to an industrial space. Each piece is put together by aligning the holes cut on each piece,” explains Padora.

“Basically, they are all joined to create the entire piece. We outputted our drawings into the CNC (computer numerical controlled) machines that routed our ply for us. In a sense, our 3-D drawings automatically fabricated the performative sculpture. It was routed in the workshop and assembled on site.”

The bar display is lit through LEDs. “We needed something that would be thin enough to sit in the grooves we created, and at the same time would do justice to the design of the space – so LEDs were perfect.

You don’t see them, as they’re kind of hidden within,” points out Padora. The under-lit walnut wood serving counter has a stainless steel working counter, while the bar stools (sans backrests, so you can sit the other way too) are in plywood and metal.

On both levels, the plaster on the walls was deliberately stripped off so as to expose the red brick underneath and contrast the same with the slickness of the installation. Exposed metal ducts underline the disparity. Paper and soluble ink were used to give the ceiling the requisite acoustic treatment, while the flooring is cast-in-place concrete that looks appropriately minimal. “The idea was that nothing should visually contest with the top of the bar,” says Padora.

As it’s in solid plywood, just one section of the display weighs about 80kgs – so it needed support. As the clients specified that if somebody wants to hang off the blob, they should be able to do so without damaging anything, the designers created a jungle of metal supports to monkey-proof it. “The crisscrossing network of high-tension steel rods makes it very dense in the middle – in contrast to the fluidity, the smooth contiguous sensuousness of the bar display form,” Padora points out. “We could have supported it with verticals, but it would have swayed.”

At the far end on the lower level is the DJ booth, marked by the only painted red wall – which shields the service staircase from view. Adjoining it is a wooden dance floor.  The furniture is custom-designed, mostly in plywood. Little niches were created by caging the existing windows in galvanised iron, so they become convenient chill-out zones.

The main challenge for the team was the blob art. “When we did the design build, we co-ordinated the entire installation piece – from drawing it in 3-D, cutting it up, putting it on to a ply surface so that there was no wastage, sending that drawing to the laser cutter, making sure he cut it properly, and getting the carpenters to align all the holes together. So, for all practical purposes, we actually built the installation,” exclaims the designer.

There are reference holes for each piece, and in all there were 3000 to 4000 pieces to be glue-laminated together. The blob was designed in such a way that parts of it were flat enough for the bottles to stand. “We had to cut the outer form in a curve and the inner part straight,” elucidates Padora, who believes that design should have a purpose. “Just aesthetics is not enough reason to do something, there has to be a programme to support your need for an aesthetic like that – which is why I think art must perform some function.”

The backdrop of the bar on the fine dine level is a CNC-milled plywood bar display, which doubles up as a partition separating the two levels. Besides the original iron girders and the ducting, the ceiling has light fixtures and a projector stand. Here again, the acoustics are controlled through a sprayed-on paper-based acoustic layer on the ceiling. The tables are made of sectioned plywood with a mild steel base, while the lighting on this level is a combination of warm halogen up-lighters on the walls and down-lighters on the ceiling.

After stripping off the original plaster on the brick wall and sanding down the uneven brick, an epoxy filler and coat was applied to plug the gaps and prevent flaking of the bricks – taking care of the clients’ exhortation that the place should not look dirty. Yet, there are guests who ask Schabracq when the walls will be plastered and painted! “They don’t believe that the wall was already plastered and painted, but we wanted these bricks to show,” he laughs.

Design plays a key role in attracting guests. “Where you go out says a lot about you. Zenzi Mills is chic but not kitsch, it’s luxury but not nouveau riche,” says a satisfied Schabracq. “We don’t have a door policy, but the design makes people feel good or not. Our guests have a been-there-done-that attitude and they appreciate our no-nonsense concept.”

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May 2020
11 May 2020