According to Julyan Wickham, talking about bar design with Block Architecture, 'architecture and design are about making archetypes, not typologies'.Yet as the talk unfolded, it became increasingly clear that the bar, which, as Wickham suggested, might be regarded as a 'trivial part of our existence', should be recognised as a characteristic urban typology - at least of affluent, westernised cities.
The problem with taking bar design seriously lies in the fact of their very quick turnaround.
According to Graeme Williamson of Block, most bars are looking at a period of five years to recoup the investment, and its client at Grand Central in Shoreditch spelt out in no uncertain terms that the venue would close within the year if it was full only on Friday and Saturday nights. Its aim was to create a scheme that was 'not too plastic and surface', using materials and visual references drawn from the city environment to 'tie it down a bit more', bringing people into a venue engrained into the social and physical context, and thus generating longevity.
As AJ editor Isabel Allen, chairing, pointed out, the Block approach is strongly literary and filmic in its inclinations: it is all about 'reading' the design in a certain way, hinging on deliberatelyproduced mental and visual associations. It talks about 'stitching in the dynamism of the street', and uses materials such as motorway reflector panels, glamourising and romanticising the hard-edged quality of contemporary urban life: the whitetiled basement at Grand Central, for instance, is inspired by the image and 'static' quality of the 'traditional' urban underpass.
Wickham's approach might be more appropriately described as anthropological in inspiration - perhaps reflecting his association with the late Aldo van Eyck, whose anthropological interests were well-established. His 'obsession' with bar design (which earned him a Time Out award for 'Outstanding Achievement' in restaurant design in 1999) derives from their intrinsic nature as social places, where humans can fulfil their natural inclination to be gregarious. He describes the bar as 'a vehicle of pleasure and sustenance'.
Wickham suggests that such places may be doomed by the 'demand for a corporate idea' which is taking over the industry. It is all to do with branding now and, indeed, this tendency is extending into architecture. But one could argue that the 'designer bar' itself, of the sort which Wickham has been producing with some panache for years, paved the way towards this dead-end. The most successful bars in history have become so on account of their clientele; but as the society of late 20th-century cities became ever more transient, bars became less able to sustain a distinct clientele, and turned to design to establish an identity - opening up a new area of work for architects in a world where traditional commissions were becoming steadily rarer. As soon as this happened, branding was around the corner.
'Architect-Designed Bars, with Julyan Wickham and Block Architecture' was an AJ seminar, sponsored by the einstein network, and held at Earls Court 2 last Thursday as part of 100% Design