words Alex Wiltshire
An avenue of zelkova trees inspired Japanese architect Hitoshi Abe’s interior for a new French restaurant in Sendai, 400km north-east of Tokyo.
The restaurant, called Aoba-tei, which means “leafy place”, features walls and ceilings decorated with images of leaves and branches. These images are perforated through steel, and refer to the avenue of zelkovas, the city’s symbol, just outside the restaurant.
Abe designed the perforated steel surfaces as a single continuous inner “skin”. This runs in an S-shape to contain both the reception area on the restaurant’s lower floor and the upper 30-seat dining area. “We made this steel plate as a seamless monocoque surface in order to create a seamless graphic surface for the images of zelkova trees, and to integrate the two floors smoothly,” he says.
The skin’s outer surface, made from 22mm-thick steel plate, performs 90û turns as the walls bend into the ceilings. The upper-floor ceiling height rises from just over 2m high at the front to 3.5m at the back. To achieve all the complex curves in the skin, a shipbuilding process was used in which key points are heated and chilled.
The spaces are lit with concealed downlights and by lighting behind the perforated skin. The overall effect is a golden gloom that evokes the ambience of a forest.
Abe also designed the chairs and tables – each is moulded from a single piece of birch plywood that references the curves of the inner loop – and the long walnut wood counter that runs down the back half of the upper floor of the restaurant.
Hitoshi Abe has his own practice, which he established in Sendai in 1992. Other projects of his include the 49,000-seater Miyagi Stadium, near Sendai, created for the 2002 World Cup, and the Miyagi Water Tower.
Aoba-tei is currently only open for special guests of the owner, who made his fortune in beef tongue, a local delicacy.
“Since Aoba-tei was published in a local magazine it became a kind of legendary restaurant,” says Abe. “I think they’re waiting for this restaurant to open.”