Why World-Famous Architect David Manica Is Building a Bar in Kansas City
David Manica specializes in designing stadiums that seat tens of thousands. Here’s how he’s using his knowledge to change the way we build bars.
How did you become a stadium architect? “Growing up, I was either gonna be a musician and play trumpet, or be an architect. In late high school, I made the decision to be an architect and went to University of Kansas for architecture school. I’m from Kansas City, and a lot of big sports architecture firms are based here. I wanted to work in a big firm, and so chances were good it would be a sports-focused one.”
What are some of the notable stadiums you’ve worked on? “At my former firm [Populous, then called HOK Sport Venue and Event], I was the lead designer for O2 Arena and the new Wembley Stadium in London, as well as Beijing National Stadium [which made its debut for the 2008 Summer Olympics]. In 2007, I decided to start my own firm, Manica Architecture, and today we have offices in London, Shanghai and Kansas City. Right now, we’re working on the Chase Center—the new home for the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco—and the new Las Vegas stadium for the NFL’s Raiders when they move there in 2020. We’re also building the new VTB Arena Park in Moscow and four different stadium projects in China.”
What made you decide to open a cocktail bar in Kansas City? “I was born and raised here. I always thought I’d leave, but I fell in love with the city and what I do. I love that I get to live here. It’s a beautiful place. I’ve spent a lot of time in London, Moscow, other cities that have great cocktail scenes, and then I’d come home to Kansas City and not be able to find the same kind of thing. We want The Monarch to be unlike anything we’d ever seen before, even in London. My goal isn’t to be just one of the best bars in Kansas City but one of the top bars in the world.”
The Monarch is set to open this August. Tell us about the bar’s design. “There are three main spaces in the bar. First is the outdoor patio, which is an amazing patio with a glass canopy over it and built-in banquette seating. In a lot of ways, the patio was inspired by some of my experiences in Moscow—in the summer, they have the most amazing patio experiences there because it’s so cold most of the time. (And in summer, the days are really long.)
Next, the main room is all white with a big white bar in the center. The hallmark of the design is the bar, a big marble bar in the center with no back bar. We made it as narrow as possible—if you’re sitting on one side of the bar you can flirt with a girl on the other side. There’s also a chandelier designed in cooperation with the Kansas City Art Institute that’s made up of 1500 sculpted butterflies. And there’s a hand-painted triptych of monarch butterflies along the wall next to the bar that was inspired by enormous baroque paintings. It’s 27 feet long—we wanted to have an installation of art that was the size of the entire wall!
The third space is the Parlour. That’s our private room, our VIP room. You have to be invited or be a member to get in. It’s very, very exclusive. We carved a door out of two feet of concrete in the back to create a private, exclusive atmosphere with a private entrance for celebrities.”
What about the drinks? “Cocktails come first. We’ve designed a very special cocktail list: There’ll be drinks here that you can’t get anywhere else. Of course, we’ll have an incredible selection of premium liquors. There will be small and specialized wine and beer lists, but it’s primarily a cocktail bar. And there’ll be some small plates—you need to eat while you drink a little bit! The whole vibe will be unlike anything else and be really special.”
Why is the bar called The Monarch? What’s the connection to butterflies? “Monarch has some historic significance in Kansas City. There was a famous printing company based here with that name. There are lots of places in the city with monarch in their names, but they mostly use crowns and images of royalty. We wanted to go in a different direction, so we used the butterfly. It just felt like the name it was supposed to be.”
How is designing a stadium that seats tens of thousands like designing a bar that seats at most a couple hundred? “It has to do with the premium experience. In any modern stadium, there are different spaces. Some are concourses that hold 25,000 people; some are private clubs and other spaces for VIPs that are much smaller than that. One of the things we spend a lot of time thinking about is what makes spaces special and different from one another. The stadium needs to have a significant draw for all the people in the city. We were able to take a premium design and experience and translate it to this bar. It’s not like a stadium bar; it’s more like a West End bar in London. Our experiences going to those types of bars, frankly, helped us bring this together into a complete design.”
What do most bars get wrong in terms of design and architecture? “Putting the bar up against the wall. I’m just so tired of that. It’s the way it’s always been done, and so people don’t rethink that, and it’s disappointing. It doesn’t create the kind of social atmosphere I wanted to have for The Monarch. We oriented everything toward the center instead of the wall. In most bars, you put your back to the middle of the room and face the wall/bartender. We put the bar in the center and had uncompromised sightlines: Anywhere in the room, you can see anybody else in the room.
Some bars do push the bar out into the center of the room, but the problem is they often get the proportions wrong. The bar is too big and you can’t see the people on the other side—you feel like you’re sitting alone. There’s a brand-new, very expensive bar here in Kansas City with a big bar down the middle that cuts the space in half. It’s like two different bars, and it’s very disappointing.”
Do you think a building’s design can help bad food and drinks taste better, or good food and drinks taste worse? “I do believe that. I believe that the experience of the atmosphere of the space, the hospitality of the individual serving you, really makes a difference. You can have an incredible drink served by an incredible bartender in an incredible setting, and it’s much better than the same drink just shoved across the bar at you in a dive.”
What’s your personal taste in drinks? “My go-to cocktail is a Negroni. I drink lots of those. My usual recipe is equal parts Bombay Sapphire Gin, Campari and Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth, on a big ice cube, with an orange twist for garnish. I enjoy Scotch, too. If I want to go light, vodka is really good—especially high-quality vodka like they drink in Moscow.”
What are some of your favorite bars and restaurants around the world? “One of my very favorites, which had a lot of inspiration on The Monarch, is Connaught Bar in London. One thing they do there is to make Martinis on a cart right in front of you if you’re not sitting at the bar. We’ll have a Martini and Negroni cart at The Monarch just like that. Some of my other favorite bars in London are The Gibson, Berners Tavern, Oriole, and Artesian. Those are all high-end West End cocktail bars. Another bar I really like is the bar at the Hotel de Russie in Rome. One of the things I notice about these places is that when you watch a really good bartender who’s like an artist, it’s really amazing to watch them do what they do. They way their hands kind of dance in front of you as they make this drink, it’s really kind of magical.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.