The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
On the south bank of the river Thames, in between the London Eye and the Waterloo Bridge, a little part of Mexico stands out like a rainbow in the greyness of the city: a sapphire set between the concrete of the underlying skate park and of the overlying Queen Elizabeth Hall.
With its liveliness and vibrancy, Wahaca - the Mexican restaurant - merges with the eccentricity of the environment and becomes one of the must-see attractions of the area.
Overloaded by the urban legends and praised by the lovers of novelty, it enters the circle of the few elected “hip places” and, under the influence of exaggeration, it is idolised as the best Mexican cuisine in London. Words too subjective to establish an absolute truth. As Hegel said the truth, to be such, must be freed from temporal, spatial and experimental constrains. A thought which does not apply to this building: Wahaca sinks in all three categories being a temporary occupant of a space and a product of an innovative experimentation.
As we approach the restaurant, a strong smell of guacamole advertises it to the crowd. The tourists in a hurry stop at the van positioned at the side of the pedestrian walk, while the more curious trek up the rough and unwelcoming stairs to the temple of food.
A series of colourful murals spectate the climb: from the chillies on the steps to the faces animating the cement volume preceding the building. The ghosts of Mexico City are ready to welcome us: we are no longer in London but in a colourful illusion, where blues, yellows and greens dominate the scene.
Along the entrance ramp, the letters of the word Wahaca are disposed in a rather cryptic way to greet us. The same sign - shiny and red - already towers on the top of the building, subtly trying to creep into our heads, eager to make its presence felt.
The proximity to the containers makes us notice their industrial look, and the continuous zigzag on the surface, imperceptible from far. Here the magic is over. We are no longer in Mexico, but in the old Southbank of the docks and factories. Lying near the river, the containers seem to be waiting for a new load and a new destination, accustomed to being recycled and reused without leaving any trace of their existence.
The boxes, stacked one on another, come together to form a geometric sculpture, where the rectangular shape is dominant. The cantilever container breaks the order, shifting away from the others. In precarious balance, it seems ready to collapse on the heads of customers queuing at the entrance. This device gives rise to a terrace overlooking the river.
The compact form of the parallelepipeds creates a two-storey space into the volume of a single one, transforming an initial limitation into one of the design’s strengths. The double height glazed atrium acts as the main connection inside the building. This not only links the area of the services in the back to the seating area in the front, but also the ground floor to the first floor housing the only staircase. The materiality of the containers here clashes with the immateriality of light that invades and characterises the space. Three rectangular holes, reminiscent of Fontana’s cuts, allow sunrays to radiate into the toilets, showing an attention to detail.
The circulation throughout the building makes the environment chaotic and frantic. The movement of customers following the lengths of the containers is perpendicular to the one of the waiters and staff: bumping into each other is on the daily menu.
During the summer, the fixed building elements rebel to their parallelepiped forms and become an amorphous footprint. The big horizontal windows open up to the world, transforming the outer space into the extension of the inner one. The regularity disappears in the inconsistency and transparency of the glass. Everything is projected outwards, in a scheme where the terracing of the building becomes its bearer. The seat excavated in the external timber deck, the internal timber flooring and the above terrace constitute the three levels, each one offering a different view of the Thames or of Southbank.
During the winter, the building shrinks back to its geometry: it closes up and resumes strength. The windows retake consistency and the heat tarnishes them, making the restaurant more private and exclusive, no longer part of the road. The natural ventilation ceases and the stale air takes its place. The attention is not anymore lost in the surrounding environment but is focused on the materials and on the different furniture arrangement.
On the ground floor, the ceiling is populated with bamboo canes, almost as if to repair from the Mexican sun. Upstairs a sky of lights invades the stainless grates. The design of the building involves every element: from a spoon to a city, as Walter Gropius used to say. From the chairs to the containers.
Walking away from the building, one realises its greatest asset: the human scale. We live in a world where the height of a building counts more than its substance. There are no limits, not even the sky. Wahaca is about people, space and connection. It can be fully experienced and understood. Only in a place like this we can rediscover our humanity.
Unfortunately, its strength is also its weakness: it is temporary, good for the environment, but destined to disappear or lose its very essence.