By Beth Herman
There are more than 18 restaurants, including Washington's acclaimed Masa 14, in his epicurean empire, at far-flung locations from D.C. to Denver to Dubai. So what could powerhouse chef/owner Richard Sandoval have in common with a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and her garage full of power tools?
For Brie Husted of Brie Husted Architecture, who created Sandoval's latest D.C. digs—the eclectic El Centro D.F. (stands for Distrito Federal), at 1819 14th Street NW, the tools are her unconventional calling card. In fact with a knack for fabrication that rivals her creative prowess, Husted’s so-called guilty pleasures would seem to run more toward nail guns than nail color.
“One of the things I really should credit is my RISD education,” the architect said of her views on building and design. “The architecture school there is very hands on: Your first project begins with making something—then you ask questions.”
In creating El Centro, “materiality” and “rhythm” were a key part of the creative process, as they are in all of Husted’s work. Her fusion of raw and recycled materials— rope, scrap metal, newsprint, lighting fixtures composed of metal sprinkler heads, reclaimed/repurposed old pine joists and broken Talavera tiles—resulted in a hospitality space that piques the pulse as much as the palate. “Art and architecture just feed off of one another,” she explained, citing a behemoth, textured mural of old newspapers and recycled wood in the restaurant’s main dining space, something she and her trusty battery pack nail gun fabricated in about five days. At 13-by-13-feet, its imposing, variegated cross design was actually subconscious, the architect revealed, as were the Talavera tile crosses she created in the restroom, though they’re emblematic of Mexico’s deeply religious culture.
On two levels and at 4,600 s.f., with an additional rooftop deck gilded by a single street-facing wall to absorb noise in deference to neighborhood below, three distinct dining spaces for 150 patrons facilitate El Centro’s alimentary experience. An open kitchen with distressed metal panels suggests a classic taco truck and separates the taqueria in front from the café in back. A cavernous, carved-out, below grade space, called the “tequileria,” implies the old time speakeasy atmosphere that appeals to Sandoval: He, Husted and Sandoval’s managing partner Ivan Iricanin began to conceptualize El Centro at an aptly-named Mexican speakeasy affair in NYC.
Helmed by project architect George Wabuge, whom Husted credits with keeping their mission “authentic,” general contractor and master carpenter William Camden was also part of the team. Brandishing his own set of power tools, including a chainsaw to fashion such elements as a light fixture from an old carriage house wooden beam, Camden also crafted a log trough sink in the restroom from a tree on his property. Millwork benches and more were built from reclaimed timbers—actually salvaged pine joists from deconstructed Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant homes— by furniture maker Joe Mills. “We designed and made all of the furniture,” Husted affirmed of the artful collaboration.
Texture and tradition
For inspiration, rather than acquiescing to the “shtick” she said defines many Mexican restaurants, Husted spent time researching what is characteristic and enduring about the country. “Everything’s textured, and everything’s recycled in Mexico—nothing is put in the trash can,” she said. To that end, coarse masonry block walls—ubiquitous in Mexico— were used in the restroom, and the decision to recycle was manifested in items like the space’s decades-old steel sprinkler heads. The former Georgetown Refinishing warehouse had 13- or 14-foot ceilings, wherein fire sprinklers had been lowered by pipes to about 8 feet, which worked out perfectly for the team who figured out a way to transform them into rustic light fixtures. Much of El Centro’s wood, including the mural’s infill, is reclaimed wood lath, which traditionally backs plaster in pre-1920s residences. And 200 feet of rope—a natural material used in vertical fashion as a guardrail—embellishes the restaurant stairs, reinforced by turnbuckles for durability.
Of culture and carpentry
Eschewing what can be the anonymous cog-in-wheel nature of architectural firm work, as a young architect, Husted eventually focused on general contracting and carpentry work for personal projects she created (a home she bought; another renovation with a friend). She also worked as a construction administrator and carpenter before hanging out her own architecture shingle in 2000.
At her first formal meeting with Sandoval and Iricanin, the native Washingtonian presented a 12-by-24 piece of wood and some scrap metal, along with a few newspapers, declaring these were what she was considering for the design. “They said it was curious, but OK – they’d go with it,” Husted said. “One thing they say in school about professional practice is that you can’t have a good project without a good client. Ivan (Iricanin) really got this and encouraged it.”
In the cellar, or tequileria, the space was actually dug out and left raw, with a poured concrete bar, floors and walls. Because steel beams spaced on 5-foot centers supported a concrete floor on the level above it (not a lot of owners are willing to venture that far, according to Husted, who credits Sandoval and Iricanin with their sense of adventure), wood vaults with 10-foot arches could be inserted between the beams to give it a real cellar feel but with additional height and drama. Drawing on the cultural research she’d done in the beginning, Husted carved multiple niches tableside, in the walls, in which to display Mexican art.
“I went to Mexico and found something OK, but then Richard and Ivan went and searched all over,” Husted recalled. At the end of one day, they walked into a little gallery shop, (the now defunct) La Azteca, and found these masks, each based on a Mexican myth, and bought 20 of them for the tequileria’s niches.
As the brunt of design elements at El Centro were conceived onsite, Husted revealed the materiality and temporal nature of the project—four months from permit drawings to Cinco de Mayo grand opening—made creating many things ahead of time impossible.
“In my work, half of my ideas come from just looking at a material and imagining what it could be,” she said.
photo credit: Rey Lopez