All those sad, underused upstairs rooms in pubs could have a bright and useful new future as an affordable place for travellers to lay their heads
I think perhaps I am not normal. I find myself, pint in hand, deep in conversation when a thought pops into my head: I wonder what’s upstairs? I remember coming into a four-storey building, with a grand, well-proportioned and elegant facade, and now I am in here in this bar there is no upstairs, often not even a sense that there ever was an upstairs. Sometimes, sadly, I feel I’ve seen too much. I have wandered through the derelict upper floors of elegant listed buildings and peeled my shoes off the sticky carpets of abandoned landlord flats. I know what’s upstairs and it ain’t pretty. I have often scratched my head and wondered how, in our cities, where we live and work cheek by jowl, piled upon each other, this space has ended up lost. Now it seems that one of Britain’s largest publicans has woken up to the idea that the wasted space above their core business of beer could be so much more.
Our need to travel dates back to the birth of civilisation. It seems almost as soon as we stopped migrating, we decided to start travelling for leisure, perhaps in homage to our nomadic past. The pub in Britain, however, is only around 2,000 years old and the inn perhaps only 1,000. But the tradition of providing shelter for the weary traveller has pervaded through history, with friendly hosts opening their doors to passing strangers to warm themselves by the fire. It is in the footsteps of this tradition that we find ourselves working with our new clients. The model is simple enough. The hostel operator has a brilliant idea, it has a short, promising track record, but limited funds and no property; the publican fills the gaps and the working partnership is created.
This new model presents a number of challenges to us as architects, not least in navigating the planning legislation, which defines these wasted spaces as part of the licensed premises despite the fact that most are used as informal, often terrible sleeping accommodation for staff on a short term basis. The resulting change in use requires large investment in upgrading the fabric and, ultimately, the warren of cellular rooms that make up most upper floors must be moulded and stretched to accommodate the large numbers of beds and bathrooms required make the business case work. A classic hotel or B&B approach simply doesn’t stack up. There is too much competition in the marketplace to charge £200 per night for a bed above a pub, but turn that down to £20 per night for a quiet night in the centre of London after a full day of travel and you have a model that appeals to a huge audience of experiential travellers who would rather see, touch and taste the city than be pampered in an anonymous, air-conditioned box.
A quick internet search for ‘hostel’ paints a desperate picture of the quality of space and level of design that passes for hostels worldwide today. Whether it is a lazy or unscrupulous host charging top dollar for a dirty bed in a windowless room, two miles from the city centre, or a shiny new ‘concept’ hostel with bright colours and wacky interiors that painfully attempt to energise the concept as something young or cool (as though it is otherwise intrinsically bad), something is simply not right. Modern travellers are educated, image conscious, socially responsible, #hashtag toting warriors. Simple, honest, contemporary interiors, with a huge focus on practical details (like phone charging shelves and lockers) means that the experience works. It’s not fancy, it’s not superfluous, but it is beautiful and it is functional.
But this is not just about the hostel, this is also intrinsically about the pub. The humble British pub has remained the heart of the community, despite all attempts to homogenise, what is essentially a warm fire, with good food and ale. In a fight against the trend for over-design and hyperrealistic ‘authentic’ experiences, these pubs take the process of adaptation in their stride. A simple peeling back of several decades of ad-hoc misuse and neglect reveals the underlying character of these historic spaces. This is set against a limited palette of colour and texture to create a space that is still pub at its core, still a place to spend the evening with friends, or in more modern times a place to work during the day. A home from home to rest the horses and refresh.
Through a process of rigorous assessment and subsequent testing and retesting of potential for extension, alteration and reconfiguration, we carve a functional series of rooms from the disused uppers of these historic buildings. The pub is integral to the hostel, providing a reception, a lobby and a restaurant, but so too the hostel reinvigorates the pub, giving it purpose beyond a back street boozer somewhere near a transport hub. The outcome is a return to the former life of these buildings, a pub with rooms, reinvented for the modern traveller.
Rodrigo Moreno Masey is founder and creative director of MorenoMasey