A standout among Duluth St. restos
Maybe too much – city may order owner to demolish $ 50,000 facade
Eyesore or work of art? Better make up your mind quick, because the new facade of the Khyber Pass restaurant might not be there for long.
It was built without a permit, the owner has been fined, and the City of Montreal could order it torn down because it clashes with the more traditional architecture around it.
Erected this summer, the all-cedar facade definitely makes the Afghan eatery stand out on the popular strip of restaurants on Duluth St. E. in the Plateau Mont Royal, between Berri and St. Hubert Sts.
Amid the simple brick facades with classic wood frame windows of its neighbours, the Khyber Pass is a jumble of wooden angles inspired by the architecture of Afghanistan.
“We get people stopping all the time now to take photos – minimum 30 a day,” Faruk Ramisch said. “Everyone says, “Wow, what beautiful work!”
Sami Akrout, 38, the sculptor and painter who designed and made the facade with his own hands, proposed his bois dansant (dancing wood) idea to the restaurant’s owner last spring. Ramisch leapt at the chance to give a radical facelift to the eatery he’s owned since 1998. What Akrout calls the organic lines and organic materials of the western red cedar reminded Ramisch of the architecture of Nuristan province, in his native Afghanistan.
“All the buildings are made of wood there – it’s part of our history,” said Ramisch, 56.
By contrast, “Duluth St. has become a sad place – it looks dilapidated,” he added. “It bothered me, and I told myself I had to do something to draw more people here.”
Akrout simply likes working with cedar.
“This is an adventure, making organic architecture in an urban zone,” said Akrout.
Trained in architecture in his native Tunisia but not licensed in Quebec, he settled here in 1998 after a spell in Whistler, B.C., where he learned modern timberframe construction.
“I’ve always tried to make things that have human movement, like sculpture; I try to make architecture anatomic; I try to make it move – that’s what I’ve done here,” Akrout said, running his palm along one of the undulating facade’s “feminine” curves, as he describes them.
“It’s the aesthetic that guides me; after that, I find the technique that makes it possible”
The technique involves wood – lots of it.
“Cedar is what high-quality fences and decks are made of,” Akrout said. “It’s what the most chic motor boats in the world are made of. It’s magnificent, it’s durable, it disinfects the air. And it’s a lot cheaper than aluminum.”
He got the cedar from Home Depot and Rona, choosing each plank individually. At home, he soaked the planks in his swimming pool to make them malleable, then transported them to the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. There, he cut them into 800 pieces, fitting them to plywood over the brick facade with hundreds of $1 copper bolts. He added slices of white cedar as trim and finished everything with a homemade varnish.
The facade took five months to build and cost $50,000.
An anonymous complaint brought a Plateau building inspector in June after construction had begun. The absence of a permit brought a fine of $560. The owner was ordered to apply for a permit, which he finally did in Octo- ber, after the work had been completed.
The application is now being studied by the borough’s consultative committee on urbanism. “We might get to a point where we say, ‘Take it all down,’ ” said Michel Tanguay, spokesperson for the Plateau borough. “The problem is simple: The owner transformed his facade without a permit. There are other ways of distinguishing yourself.”
Ramisch pleaded ignorance of the law. “It’s my building; I own it. I didn’t know I needed a permit for the facade, honestly. When the inspectors came, even before they saw our plan, they said we only had a 10-per-cent chance of getting it accepted.
“They told me it was an issue of the architectural heritage of the street. I said, ‘What heritage?’ The old buildings around here are falling apart – is that the kind of heritage you’re protecting?’ We should get a prize for having the best facade in Montreal.”
Akrout said he has no problem with heritage – as long as it’s natural. “I respect the heritage of this country in the building material I use: wood.”
That’s fine, Tanguay said, but the pair should have gone to the city first. “You can stand out from the crowd. But you have to be careful.
“The Plateau has a cachet, and we’re losing it to construction that’s been done any which way,” he said. “Can we find a compromise that gives a different, exotic touch to this restaurant, while integrating it into the streetscape of Duluth? I hope so.”
Sami Akrout (left) designed the facade for Faruk Ramisch, owner of the Khyber Pass restaurant on Duluth St. E.