Where do you go after you reach the very top of Manhattan’s dining scene? For New York architecture firm Modellus Novus (MN), the answer is simple: You head right back down to the street to start pounding the pavement all over again. Granted, these days, it’s some pretty lofty pavement that they’re pounding.
After completing the latest in a growing portfolio of destination dining environments last August — Saga, on the 63rd floor of a Financial District skyscraper — MN is now at work contributing to Diamond Schmitt Architects and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ revitalization of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.
Placed in charge of the hospitality spaces, the 20-person studio envisions a new restaurant that will spill out into the venue’s monumental courtyard. “We really want the restaurant to feel like part of that larger shared space outside,” says Jonathan Garnett, the firm’s creative director. “We’re making a real, painstaking effort to open it up and create something remarkably transparent.”
For Garnett and the rest of MN’s leadership team — Preeti Sriratana, Anya Gribanova and Steven Harper — getting selected to work on such a prominent landmark is a profound accomplishment not only because it involved beating out many more established firms, but because it fulfills a destiny seven years in the making.
Ever since MN’s first potential client meeting back in 2014 — an ultimately successful interview to design military apparel manufacturer Crye Precision’s Brooklyn headquarters in a former Navy shipbuilding factory — the firm has started all its pitch presentations with a picture of Rock Steady Crew member Frosty Freeze breakdancing at Lincoln Center Plaza. (As of this year, an original print of the Martha Cooper photograph also hangs in their office lobby.) The photo effectively captures the balance of sky-high ambition and grounded compassion that is MN’s specialty. “It shows people coming together — New York’s street culture meeting its high culture — and how the city can make room for that,” says Garnett.
MN’s own regard for inclusivity manifests in grand-but-never-stiff environments that tap into the multi-layered history of their sites — and place just as much emphasis on the prep kitchen as they do on the dining area. “We want to create spaces where everybody feels welcome,” Sriratana says. “And we don’t necessarily see the barriers that a lot of other people see between different groups,” Garnett adds.
In a field presided over by a disproportionate number of white men, Modellus Novus represents a refreshing alternative. Each member of its leadership team comes from a different background: Sriratana, the child of Thai immigrants, is MN’s managing director; Gribanova, born in Russia, handles studio administration; Garnett, a Black and Japanese architect originally from Oakland, leads the firm’s design process; and Harper, who is white and grew up in the woods of North Carolina, oversees business operations. “I always joke that, together, we make one good architect,” Harper says.
He and Garnett had previously worked together at another firm; they originally met Sriratana through a project that their firms collaborated on. “We all had the immediate sense that we could do something special together and that we had skill sets that married very well,” Harper explains. “And we had this belief that, by building our own thing, we could really make it what we thought it should be.” Gribanova, a peer of Harper’s from his student days at Virginia Tech, joined shortly after. “To have us all come together in this city and scrape this together on basically just dreams — it’s a very New York story,” says Sriratana.
All four approach their adopted metropolis looking to better reflect its social fabric. Take Lincoln Center, for instance. One of Robert Moses’s so-called “urban renewal” initiatives, the project’s construction back in the 1950s involved razing an entire community, San Juan Hill, and displacing thousands of African–American, Afro–Caribbean and Puerto Rican families. A key priority of MN’s schematic design for David Geffen Hall’s upcoming restaurant was to acknowledge this history — and to reintroduce the modern-day Lincoln Center to a more diverse crowd of patrons.
To achieve this, the firm is adopting a high–low mix of materials that recaptures the spirit of the site as it would have been before it became the domain of operas, orchestras and ballet recitals. That means wrapping columns in materials that look shiny and luxurious but are actually utilitarian and industrial, like chromatic steel. “We’ve placed that right next to bronze and mohair,” says Garnett. “So you have this combination of things that shouldn’t be together, paired in this cohesive way. There’s a real synergy in that.”
Besides winning over the team at Lincoln Center, Modellus Novus has also become a go-to for culinary tastemakers striking out on their own after years of honing their skills under Michelin-starred heavyweights.
Two of the latest examples are Taka Sakaeda and Jihan Lee, a pair of sushi pros who left three-Michelin-starred Masa to open their own fast-casual handroll hot spot, Nami Nori, in a serene (and budget-friendly) space that MN filled with maple timber and terrazzo counters back in 2019. Last year, Nami Nori expanded to an additional MN-designed location in Brooklyn.
Sakaeda and Lee’s former boss is actually another MN client: Back in 2014, chef Masayoshi “Masa” Takayama and art dealer Larry Gagosian gave the studio its first-ever restaurant commission, for an offshoot of Masa called Kappo Masa in the basement of the Madison Avenue Gagosian gallery. Sriratana credits the professional referrals that snowballed from that project with turning MN into such a restaurant industry powerhouse.
In a city where any new restaurant venture represents a major gamble, MN’s discipline and vision have led to a rare string of back-to-back success stories, introducing beloved dining spots that seem destined to become not just momentary flashes in the pan but enduring New York institutions. What’s more, the firm pulled off some of its most impressive projects during a pandemic that has proved crushing to many in the hospitality industry.
When it comes to fine dining, their latest smash hit is Saga, which also encompasses a second-floor cocktail bar, dubbed Overstory. Since opening late last summer, Saga and its US$245-per-person tasting menu have generated big buzz that runs in opposition to the quiet intimacy of its dining rooms. The restaurant occupies a portion of 70 Pine Street — an art deco tower that was the third-tallest in the world when it was completed back in 1932 — originally built to be the owner’s penthouse.
Floors upholstered in plum wool carpet build on this history by evoking a domestic environment, creating the sense that diners are guests at a cocktail party hosted by an old friend who just so happens to have impeccable taste in art and furniture. A Basquiat hangs on the wall, while silk chandeliers accented with glam tassels float overhead. And when diners take a seat, they do so on dusty rose chairs painted to match a shade of Christian Dior nail polish.
“Designing within a nationally landmarked tower with views like that, we didn’t want the space to feel so precious or formal that it became like a museum,” says Sriratana. “With a lot of nice restaurants, I can technically get a reservation, but once I’m there, I still feel like I don’t belong. Having one of the most popular restaurants in the city designed by an African–American architect, it changes that.”
The restaurant is the follow-up to a sister establishment, Crown Shy, located on the same building’s ground floor and opened in 2019. That dining room trades Saga’s swish cocktail party vibe for a lofty, minimalist elegance achieved with a grid of crisp black lines and a bevy of rich textures, including granite, oiled oak and brushed leather. The lighting is warm and cinematic, delivered in part by glowing orbs hung from custom brass chandeliers co-designed by MN and long-time lighting collaborator David Weiner, who does most of his work on Broadway productions.
Both Saga and Crown Shy are run by chef James (né Jamal) Kent, whose prior experience includes stints as the executive chef at NoMad and the chef de cuisine at Eleven Madison Park, but also an illustrious career as a graffiti artist. His direction to MN? “He said, ‘I want my restaurant to have the fine-dining heritage of James, but it also has to have the soul of Jamal,’ ” says Sriratana.
The soul of Crown Shy resides in what Garnett refers to as its “radically open” kitchen. “There’s no front and back of the house there,” he says. “There’s a service team and a kitchen team, but people aren’t hidden behind doors. It opens up this dialogue about who’s working, and it highlights that talent.”
Sriratana admits that, coming out of school, he hadn’t initially understood the hospitality sector’s appeal. “Relative to the buildings we were taught, restaurants are small, intimate spaces, and a lot of them can be seen as gimmicky or transient,” he says. “But there’s also been a huge cultural shift in the past decade. Now, the places where people gather are primarily restaurants. You especially understood that during the pandemic, when all the conversations about getting cities reopened were about restaurants.”
Modellus Novus now sees — and designs — restaurants as important spaces that impact both their patrons and their employees. “I think it became more poignant when you saw how the economy essentially collapsed largely because the hospitality industry faltered,” Garnett says. “The struggle of those in this industry became very visible.”
This same regard for behind-the-scenes talent is also built into MN’s own values system, which the firm’s partners have worked hard to differentiate from what they see as an unacceptable norm in a field prone to overworking and undervaluing its employees. “Before I worked at MN, it was a running joke at other firms to say ‘Oh, you’re leaving early’ if someone left at 7 p.m.,” says Gribanova. “But a bad work–life balance isn’t funny. I think with the right mindset and environment, you can get amazing output without having to pull all-nighters.”
She acknowledges that this requires finding clients who are willing to accept realistic project schedules. “We have a ‘No assholes’ rule,” she says simply. The firm also operates a wellness program based on recommendations from the Global Wellness Institute. “The most important thing is that people feel comfortable enough to speak up. Because architecture is not just one person coming up with an idea — it’s a collaborative process.”
Sriratana sees a parallel in the family meals served in the restaurant industry. “Some places are notorious for serving their staff hot dogs, basically,” he says. “But when we were working with Chef Masa, we noticed that his team always enjoyed these beautiful meals made with really fine ingredients. So even with our tiny-ass budget back in the day, we made it a rule that, for our own team meals, we’d set out to practise that kind of hospitality. Because you have to understand how fine dining actually works — and tastes — to design for it.
Looking to the year ahead, MN’s team has its plate as full as ever. Along with Lincoln Center, they are also at work designing a comeback project by chef Wylie Dufresne, who was one of the leading American authorities on molecular gastronomy at wd~50 throughout the 2000s. Another highly anticipated project is a trio of new restaurants that will fill the space formerly occupied by Del Posto, the bastion of Italian fine dining owned by disgraced chef Mario Batali. Its replacement is being launched by Del Posto’s former executive chef, Melissa J. Rodriguez, who has inherited a complicated legacy.
“One of the primary challenges there is definitely the history and baggage that comes with that physical space,” says Harper. “But on the other hand,” adds Sriratana, “how amazing is it that this incredible chef is taking over as the owner and making it her own, and what does that mean for the industry? It’s a culture-defining project that stands behind the same values that we do. And that’s exactly what makes it cool.” In other words, time to get on the waiting list for a reservation.
This story was published as part of the 2022 March/April issue.
The hottest reservation in town is anywhere designed by the hospitality experts at this New York architecture studio.