In the clouds Tasked with a difficult inner-city site, Techne Architects pairs an ethereal installation with a welcome element of restraint to produce a distinctive new bar and restaurant in Melbourne.

The spatial planning brings a sense of unexpected ceremony to what is, in fact, a distinctly subdued interior.

The proliferation of architect-designed hospitality establishments hat have characterised Melbourne’s dining scene in recent years has raised the bar when it comes to producing truly standout interiors. So, when Techne Architects was commissioned to remodel the old Honkytonks nightclub into Tonka, a modern Indian restaurant run by Mykal and Kate Bartholomew and chef Adam D’Sylva, the team was faced with a double challenge: that of crafting a memorable interior in a demanding inner-city location.

Located in Duckboard Place off Flinders Lane, Tonka is not only a new addition to an already busy laneway precinct, it also occupies one of the area’s trickiest sites. “The location presented an opportunity and constraint at the same time,” explains Nick Travers, project architect and founder of Techne Architects. “A concealed entrance, windows and an outlook at only one end of the site, and the long, slender nature of the space provided significant planning challenges.”

Familiar with problematic site conditions, Techne used the L-shaped venue to create a routed procession through the 100-seat space. “The spatial planning addresses the laneway entry as the first arrival point, with a light-filled and more formal dining room at the opposite end of the venue, mediated by the kitchen and back-of-house spaces in the middle,» explains Travers. It’s certainly a unique arrangement, but one that makes sense of the awkward site footprint. «To access the main dining room, patrons must first enter through the discreet ‘keyhole’ doorway that fronts the laneway, pass through the front bar area and then walk through the kitchen and dry store space,” adds Travers. “It’s a celebration of the location and the laneway culture of Melbourne and, in some ways, mimics a New York style layout.»

The spatial planning brings a sense of unexpected ceremony to what is, in fact, a distinctly subdued interior. ‘‘Our design was an attempt to move away from what we feel is a pervading style in Melbourne at the moment,” explains Travers. “We wanted the venue to have a timeless quality, one that would perfectly balance a sense of functionality and restraint in design. While the base building works were underway, we really used the time to conceptualise, refine and debate the design and its merits before finally committing to the concept and construction documentation.”

The team’s refined and considered approach is evident in every aspect of the space, where the main feature is a beguiling installation by artist Naomi Troski. «We wanted to create a beautiful sense of theatricality,” adds Travers, “and once we’d discovered Naoni’s work, we knew that her contribution would make the perfect addition.” Troski’s cloud-like installation, Drift, is an undulating twist of white powder-coated steel mesh that weaves through the entire tenancy, bringing a delicate, three-dimensional movement to the interior.

Techne’s material application embodies the firm’s desire for restraint and is restricted to mild steel for the bar fronts and custom furniture supports, hardwood timber stained a warm, smoky grey for the tables and bar tops and soft pink limed finish for the floors. Soft greys are also used on the walls and overexposed brickwork, while the furniture is simple in nature. «The colour palette was envisioned by the client and came about after a trip to India they embarked on during the design phase,» says Travers. “The joinery and signature furniture elements throughout are robust, linear and defined by steel construction. The fitout has been constructed for longevity and detailed for flexibility in use.” The bold and raw palette of the base architecture is perfectly balanced against the soft colour of the floorboards, as well as the flashes of bright blue and watermelon shades of the loose furniture.

In essence, Techne has brought together a robust, functional and rational spatial layout with the ethereal qualities of Troski’s installation to produce a fitout that provides visual intrigue, without playing to short-term trends. More than a one-trick pony, the interior of Tonka is a refined and well-resolved addition to Melbourne’s dining scene.

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