All bets are off

What are the odds of making the betting shop’s design more salubrious?

What would the ideal betting shop look like? Is such a thing possible? Betting shops are not – let’s face it – particularly pleasant places. Most of the people in them are – statistically speaking – losers. Desperation hangs in the air, a sense of unrealistic expectation regularly shattered by sudden bursts of reality.

At best gambling can be seen as a not particularly sensible hobby, at worst it can be totally ruinous. Not all architectural typologies are ideal in themselves, even if it were possible to define what a ‘perfect’ version of them might be. What follows then is a brief summary and a proposal for how betting shops might develop a more meaningful architectural symbolism in relation to their ever-increasing presence in the high street.

Because betting shops are proliferating. Numbers increased by 40% between 2004 and 2012 and have continued to rise since. Experientially they seem to be everywhere, their corporate colours – the bright red banner of Ladbrokes, William Hill’s blue and yellow 1970s fag packet logo or Irish newcomer Paddy Power’s emerald green – dominating high streets.

The design of betting shops has been dictated by shifts in gambling legislation. First legalised in 1961, they have evolved from strange, clandestine spaces that were almost exclusively populated by men into… strange, semi-clandestine spaces almost exclusively populated by men. A bit like sex shops, their presence in the high street provokes disquiet and a sense of mild shame. And like sex shops, for a number of years they were required to have ‘dead windows’ so that customers couldn’t see in and the products on sale weren’t allowed to be displayed.

This restriction resulted in the painted images of greyhounds and racehorses that were once a familiar part of betting shop design. These stylised, almost Pop graphics had their own charm, an overlooked sub-genre of shop design. Since 1986, relaxation of gambling laws has allowed betting shops to open up their frontages and allow views in – although mostly this view is filled with huge banners announcing odds on football matches and royal babies. They are also allowed to serve drinks and provide seating, not that either of these adds much gaiety to the experience. 

A more contemporary attempt at transcending seediness might be something like Speculation Solutions, but we prefer the 1960s ‘spiviness’ of the earlier model – Turf Accountant

The standard-issue betting shop follows straightforward conventions but with an implicit sense of self-effacement that comes from decades of regulation and moral approbrium. Certain things have changed – bookies no longer chalk up shifting odds and race results – but there is a remarkable consistency too. Design has always come low on the list of priorities. As spaces that are often inhabited by seriously disappointed and upset people, a utilitarian resistance to physical damage dictates a lot of the décor choices. 

Our Ordinary betting shop accepts the betting shop’s inevitable place in the high street and attempts to give it a more public and dignified language. The first issue is what to call it. Historically, betting shops sometimes employed the coyly snobbish euphemism ‘Turf Accountant’. A more contemporary attempt at transcending seediness might be something like ‘Speculation Solutions’, but we prefer the 1960s ‘spiviness’ of the earlier model.

The shop front is an assemblage of familiar betting shop objects increased in scale to become formal architectural elements: stubby plastic pen columns, betting slip tiles and finish-line ‘roundel’ windows. In tribute to the lost art of ‘dead window’ decoration, there is also a greyhound and horse frieze topped by a racecourse barrier handrail. The entrance is between a pair of giant, golden binoculars, a tribute to the old-fashioned racetrack bookie as well as a nod to Claes Oldenburg.

The interior is given over to large TV screens broadcasting every conceivable sporting (and other) event that can be bet on. Younger gamblers tend to be suspicious of the arcane and specialist realm of horse racing and prefer to bet on football, Formula 1 and indeed pretty much anything. So our shop broadcasts episodes of Game of Thrones and the Eurovision Song Contest so that people can bet on plot developments or the likelihood of the UK coming last, as much as they can on the 3.15 from Towcester.

Inevitably there will be ranks of FOBS – Fixed Odds Betting Terminals – because these are the real reason that betting shops continue to proliferate. FOBS offer a constant distraction to the bored gambler waiting for a race to start or a football game to come to life, and require no specialist knowledge whatsoever. Essentially, they are just high-stakes fruit machines with exactly the same odds – that is, over time, you won’t win.

This sadly is the essence of the betting shop and the reason why its presence on the High Street causes such concern. It is uncomfortable to witness the ongoing hopelessness of people trying their luck and falling short. Ladbrokes will always win. But better perhaps to recognise the more positive aspects of all this: the ritual, the strange fellowship, even the absolutely necessary sense that you could beat the system and hit a serious winning streak, all of this is important. And a fitting enough subject for architecture. 

Charles Holland and Elly Ward are directors of Ordinary Architecture