Designing The Third Place: A Conversation With Two Architects
February 24, 2013, New York: My friends Robert Stansell and Tim Welsh are two talented architects who spend a lot of time thinking deeply about the power of place. After ten years working in corporate architecture jobs and designing local watering holes together on the side, they recently struck out on their own to open Emporium Design, a design-build firm with projects under its belt including New York City establishments Ella Lounge, The Blind Barber and Gallery Bar. Over the Christmas holiday in New York, I caught up with them for the opening night of their latest creation, Boulton & Watt, a gastropub on the corner of 1st St. and Ave. A on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Robert and Tim are part-owners of the pub alongside partners Darin Rubell, Jaime Felber and chef Dave Rotter. "We love this neighborhood, and we wanted to create a bar we were proud of," the group declares on its new website. Needless to say, I was intrigued. My fascination with the sociology of the "third place" -- those spots in which we congregate beyond home and work -- made me want to learn more about the process behind creating one. I believe third places that exude camaraderie and comfort are imperative in strengthening our communities, so I was eager for Robert and Tim to tell me more about what goes into designing and building an aesthetically pleasing gathering spot where the neighbors want to linger as long as possible.
Before there was Boulton & Watt, there was Nice Guy Eddie's, a dive bar with a massive Kiss mural on this busy street corner on the Lower East Side. But long before that, the site was a factory, as well as an engine repair shop in this industrial neighborhood of New York City. The gastropub's design is reflective of its location's history and vibe just the way the architects like it, despite the challenges that accompanied that intention.
"The design is industrial, which is appropriate in the neighborhood," said Tim. "Especially given its unique history and evolution, which -- almost remarkably -- hasn't been built up by developers. Boulton & Watt is picking up on that raw, industrial flavor. But the challenge when we start talking about good food in a welcoming environment was achieving industrial and raw, but also keeping it warm.
Photo Credit: Johnny Lowe
The neighborhood's roots are indeed a fitting setting for a gastropub named after Matthew Boulton and James Watt, the men behind the perfection of the steam engine in the late 1700s.
"What we were trying to do was recreate the aesthetic and excitement of their factory," said Robert. "We took established and repurposed industrial materials -- the huge pivoting windows, the reclaimed floors and the pulley systems that you saw -- to mimic the old factory nostalgia. The real kicker was we needed to not only make clear that it was a factory, but we needed to make it a warm place where people wanted to spend a lot of time."
"If you list all the building materials, warm and welcoming does not come to mind," Tim added.
To up the coziness factor, the architects incorporated features including tabletops and beams of old, salvaged wood beneath vintage belted fans, faux rusted paint on the pub's metal ceiling, and long, communal tables to welcome the neighbors.
Photo Credit: Johnny Lowe
It all came together incredibly fast; Robert and Tim headed up the design and construction of the space over a period of five months while their partners handled the food and operation.
"There's a benefit to doing a project like this in the design-build method," said Tim. "The expectation is, 'Okay, now that we have the keys -- even though we haven’t designed anything yet -- we have to start building. Imagine the traditional design process where you go through rounds of designs and revisions, and then you talk to contractors, and then you start building, that takes a lot of time. This was not traditional."
"Given the expedited schedule, I don't think we would have achieved the results that we achieved without the entire team being there every step of the way," he said. "It was a constant dialogue on the fly trying to get things right the first time."
Photo Credit: Robert Stansell, Emporium Design
Just two months since Boulton & Watt's opening night, it seems the group is well on its way.
"The restaurant is getting pretty busy," Robert said. "We're started brunch this Saturday with a private brunch event. The following weekend will be our first full weekend of brunch, afternoon drinks, and dinner."
"That Boulton & Watt perfected the steam engine really catapulted the Industrial Revolution," he said. "I'm not saying we're catapulting a revolution, but we wanted to capture that excitement."
Learn about Robert and Tim's other projects at emporiumdesign.com.
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