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The Enduring Relevance of the Pub by Kieran Gallagher

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

It is impossible to imagine any sort of social life taking place in Britain without the institution of the Drink though whenever we go out for a drink we are immediately faced with the choice: bar or pub? The bar is at the cutting edge of modern interior design, incorporating every conceivable fabric, laminate, spatial arrangement and classic of modern furniture. Many of them seem to adhere to the Richard Rogers School of Design; express everything, turn everything into a form of theatre. Vast arrays of hooks, racking and shelving display every bottle, glass and cooking implement. Cooking is often placed on an island site, a form of indoor fireworks allowing the public to watch their steaks as they sizzle and burn. The wall-climber lift is difficult to incorporate into this idiom though one bar in America went so far as to create wine towers ensuring that waiters would have to abseil up and down to retrieve customers’ requests.

Pubs, however, seem to lack the design statement  of bars. They are viewed as suburban, mediocre, if not actually a Victorian building then probably a pastiche of one. Architecturally it is difficult  to think of a building type which more completely expresses the British general public’s alienation from Modernism. It is a building type whose evolution has been almost entirely bypassed by the innovations of the Modern Movement. Jonathan Meades, with his customary intelligence, entitled his television program on the English pub “Where the Other Half Lives.”  Is the British pub just an anachronism, devoid of any qualities that could relate to architectural design?

Actually many pubs have outstanding architectural qualities. Spatially they are often fascinating. The act of entering a building is achieved with limitless variations in British pubs.  I know a very good pub in Oxford, The Lamb and Flag, where  entrance from the street leads to a   very high ceiling room. Leading off from this we find a  transitional space consisting  of a room with a bar on one side and windows on the other. This leads onto a third space with a completely different character.  Much of the character of these rooms is created by its timber panelling,  ranging from the dark-stained wood of the bar to the lighted coloured wood in the furthest room. Variations in character are also achieved by joinery techniques from the pillar and panel techniques of work-surfaces to the marks of the band-saw clearly visible alongside the dowels.

Walls are what so often give the rooms in pubs their character.  The first wall we encounter on entering a pub separates us from the street.  This is obviously achieved by an infinite diversity of  techniques. The openings in the walls vary  from leaded window panes, sometimes fused with stained glass to  sand-blasted glass with decorative etching both incorporating their additional level of privacy . One of my favourite pubs, The Cambridge Chop House, is the antithesis of this, with its  huge plate glass windows allowing splendid view of Kings College Chapel.

The quality of internal light is another quality that gives a pub’s space its character. In one of my favourite pubs, Chequers,  the  first impression on entering is that of a room panelled in dark-stained wood. The low level of natural light ensures that only gradually is this impression  modified by the sight of a brick fireplace to the right,  white-painted wood panelling to the left  and  low beams with the inevitable “duck or grouse” sign on them.

The ultimate examples of this sort of architecture, pubs such as  the Philharmonic Dining Halls in  Liverpool, have acquired this status not only because of  the Victoriana of plush velvet seating, cast iron balustrades and engraved mirrors. When you see features such as built-in seating you realise that the building appeals to something approaching a human  nesting instinct.

The Modernist pub is a very rare bird indeed. Sergison Bates designed a memorable pub for Walsall which even managed to win an award from CAMERA (The Campaign for Real Ale). An exterior lined in tile and metal together with an timber-lined interior, a mixture of paint and varnish finishes, achieved a seal of approval from an institution as conservative as this one.

It is, of course, true that some regard the traditional British pub as an anathema. Mod rock singer, Paul Weller, once announced that, rather than be seen in “Ye Olde Pub” he would only drink in Italian coffee bars.  Even if you don’t endorse the use of faux Chaucerian language, this marks out a position many enthusiasts for modern architecture will find share. Jonathan Meades, in his television program on beer, found an absence  of connection between beer and the places it is actually drunk. If it is brewed in stainless steel vats in buildings which look  like missile hangers why do we insist on drinking it in places like half-timbered coaching inns?

The answer I believe is that the barley grain and hops which form the beer, like the wood that forms the timber panelling, establishes a sort of rootedness, a link with the soil. It can even be argued that a sense of place in architecture is inseparable from regional styles of food and beverage. Jonathan Meades also thought that choice of drink indicated a great deal about the drinker’s preferences. Ale was inseparable from a disdain for the metropolis. 

Ultimately, the public house remains  popular because its  architectural language, like that of the house seems to be something that has evolved naturally. It is  an architectural given, just naturally there, taken for granted just as we all have a mother and father. No one understood this better than Christian Norberg-Schulz when he wrote the following:

“The intimate relationship of the house to what is immediately given, makes it become the constituent element of the general background element of the general background element of human life, and  thereby conditions its mood. It is so to speak “life” whereas the public building is “idea.”

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