Design Dining

Architects Sonya Sotinsky and Miguel Fuentevilla have designed hundreds of restaurants, including a dozen in downtown Tucson, and created a culinary sense of place.

July 10, 2017

Edible InterviewIssue 25: July/August 2017

You established FORS Architecture + Interiors in 1997. What attracted you to restaurant design?

Sonya: Like so many things in life, it was accidental. What we were always focused on was creating these rich sensory experiences and being very client specific. I was doing residential architecture and Miguel was drawn into doing a lot of retail work. When we discovered restaurant work, we thought: This is a great match for us. Thinking about what it’s going to feel like when you’re on a date night and sitting in this corner, or when it’s a big group of your friends for happy hour sitting in this area—it’s creating the whole sensory experience. But FORS had been a side project. We moved back to Tucson and opened full-time in January of 2000.

Miguel: Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails and Hub were our first two projects in downtown Tucson. Those projects are now staples of the community. You change Hub, and it’s like it’d be changing Cheers. They’re ingrained in the historical, cultural fabric of downtown. Since then, we’ve done Carriage House, Penca, Elvira’s, we did the master plan of the Gibson Market. We reconfigured the whole thing, brought the properties together, and then master-planned it to three restaurants. We did Playground, Bianco, Proper, Diablo Burger, Good Oak, Borderlands. Rival, Scented Leaf, and the AC Hotel Marriott.

Walk into a restaurant downtown—like Hub Ice Cream Factory or Elvira’s—and it’s likely that the husband-and-wife team Sonya Sotinsky and Miguel Fuentevilla had something to do with how it looks, feels, and sounds

How do restaurants fit into successful urban areas?

Sonya: Restaurants are the new anchors. Every time we look at a new restaurant, and particularly when we’re looking at them downtown, we have been very cognizant of building the whole environment. We’ve done signage sites for all the blocks. We’re looking at the paving. We’re looking at how the restaurant interfaces with the street. How does that restaurant plug in and deal with the street, how do the people interface back and forth, how do you engage people on the street, how does it give back to the street?

Miguel: We’ve received historic preservation awards, and yet we’re modernists at heart. And that’s because Tucson’s downtown is old. Old in the broad spectrum of the West. Phoenix’s downtown isn’t even 100 years old. Tucson’s downtown is 300. Most of these projects are iterations of the second or third building on these blocks. There’s a historical effect that we take into account and that is really important.

Sonya: For each of the buildings we’ve designed, we’ve gone back and looked at the historical photographs, looked at the maps, to see how it evolves. Every single one of those histories doesn’t manifest itself into the project, but sometimes they do. It seeps into us and shapes our approach to the project regardless.

Miguel: At Gibson’s Market, by putting a business in there, what you’re really doing is rehabilitating that building. And you’re preserving that building for the next century, for the next generations. The next generation is going to have to do the same thing we did. We’re not just creating a place; we’re also preserving history. Sonya: And layering new history upon it.

What sets Tucson’s downtown apart from other cities you’ve visited?

Miguel: We visit 10 cities and 500 projects a year. What makes us different in our weather and our cultural history. We always want to connect these restaurants with the indoor/outdoor. That’s really important. That’s not easy to do in downtown Tucson. We have much narrower spaces, more limited spaces. Something we can tie into is the history of that area. Working on Congress and Fifth is different from working on Sixth south of Broadway. The sense of place is working with the history of the buildings that we’re in. In some ways we’re similar to old, urban downtowns. It’s beyond the desert culture. When you’re downtown, you’re dealing more with the history of downtown, and the families that have been here. The timeline—that’s what makes our downtown really interesting. And then we have three great old neighborhoods surrounding downtown: the Presidio, Armory, and the Barrio.

How do you begin the process of designing a restaurant?

Sonya: Who do you envision your clientele to be? What kind of vibe do you want? On a Wednesday versus a Friday? What kind of vibe you want near the bar, compared to the back of the restaurant? What’s going to be new and what’s going to be old?

Miguel: For example, Janos’ place [Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails] was an existing restaurant. It had three previous restaurants in it before. Janos had been in downtown and left downtown. Janos’ food is extremely unique. He takes all these flavors and infuses them together and makes these creative menus. So the kitchen was really important. We had a budget. Every project has a budget. When we’re developing a brand, what’s really important? It’s about Janos. In the kitchen, there’s Janos—he’s cooking, the food is fresh, you can see where the food is being prepared. You can see the layers of the food. We spent quite a lot of money on the kitchen because we thought it was important to put Janos and the kitchen front and center. And then we add on to that. So we do a lot of things that are subtle that maybe you wouldn’t think of, but we try to make you part of the story. Make you feel like the restaurant is part of your family, so you’ll go back to that restaurant once a week.

Sonya: There’s the element of the building itself, that specific place. We really wanted to take away those other restaurants, erase those from your mind. So that has to do with the materials we use, how we layer them, to create an experience in a different way. Janos is downstairs from the Etherton Gallery. So it was important to have that art component, as part of the history of that building.

FORS Architecture + Interiors helped design Elvira’s downtown. “Elvira’s was more about the color, bringing in the layers of history,” says Miguel.

With other restaurants—how fast do you want people coming in and out, how loud do you want the space to be? Some people say, “Oh, the restaurant is so loud” and it’s like, I know, but that’s part of the design. Miguel: “It’s so loud, I don’t like spending a lot of time in there”—sometimes that’s purposeful. Because of the economics—they’ve got to move the tables.

Now we jump to Elvira’s, a restaurant that has the same name of the family restaurant that was built in 1917. So we have to bring part of that history into a new building. Elvira’s was more about the color, bringing in the layers of history from the old restaurants. There are a lot of subtle things that we hope you pick up psychologically. Maybe you don’t know why you love them, but you become a part of them.

You moved your office to downtown Tucson in 2012. How has downtown changed since then?

Miguel: I don’t think people were willing to pay for parking downtown. Now, great, they’ll pay for parking, because they want to be here. You don’t have to pay for parking at Target or Safeway. Here, you have to make that commitment. Parking alone tells you the story of downtown. Depot 2 was empty when it first opened and today Depot 2 is packed. To see those small transformations … it takes time. You try to build something in two years, it’ll fail. Success comes with slow growth. It gives businesses a chance to become established, become part of the fabric. We’ve turned into a foodie town, and that wasn’t easy to do.

If you want to retain that culture, that intellect, those people who you want to keep here, who are smart, you’ve got to give them that sense of place. We already have the climate. We have the outdoor life cornered. But what we have to corner is the livability of our city.

Megan Kimble is the editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.

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