In its many guises, the public house performs an important community role
As the temperature falls and the nights draw in, we begin to seek out cosier environs in which to spend our time. A decent boozer is a treasured thing, a secret to be shared with friends. Imagine an ordinary pub and it might be a bit like this: there would be a bar, of course, commanding centre stage, the nerve centre of the operation. Around the bar there would be tall wooden stools, forming an intimate circle of seats for the regulars, the front row of the drinking grid. Away from the bar there would be more comfortable seating, table and chair sets in different combinations, upholstered booths, enticing ‘snugs’ and window seats tucked around the edges of the room or sometimes set off in another room entirely only welcome to a select few. Perhaps a roaring fire to one side and then somewhere around the back, usually hidden or tucked away making an embarrassing full circuit of the whole pub likely for the uninitiated, are the toilets. These can vary alarmingly in quality, subject as they are to the vagaries of drink-impaired faculties, and decline markedly the closer to closing time it becomes.
Behind the bar would be the landlord or landlady, chief dispenser of booze and master of operations. From here this benign dictator can dispense beer with a mixture of muscular strength and sensitive dexterity from the beer pumps arranged behind the bar like the valves of a Wurlitzer organ. The pumps themselves are wonderfully Heath Robinson-esque objects made of turned timber and brass and adorned with the badges of the barrels they serve. And behind the bar more alcohol is displayed in all its infinite variety: spirit bottles arranged on shelves and hung upside down on brackets dispensed through optics, coloured glass and liquids glistening like shiny, precious jewels.
Beyond all this lies the private realm of the pub’s owners. Part house and part distribution centre, a secret world of cellars, tunnels and, somewhere presumably, the landlord’s home where normal domestic life is carried out.
The familiarity of this layout masks a deep subtlety in the spatial planning and social organisation of pubs. Complex nuances of behaviour are embedded in their interior worlds, signs and symbols that we learn to read and adapt to. Pub interiors reflect social mores. Historically, spatial subdivisions would have separated drinkers along lines of class, gender and age. Some – like the Prince Alfred in London’s Maida Vale – still have multiple ‘rooms’, each with their own private section of bar and separate entrance from the street. Snob screens’ mounted over the bar allow well-heeled drinkers to avoid the shame of meeting the eyes of those serving them.
Pubs can shift from raucous to convivial and offer opportunity for loud celebration or quiet solace. There are grand pubs with rich and decorative interiors like the Philharmonic in Liverpool, and tiny parlour bars like the Sun Inn, Leintwardine where the drink is served straight from a barrel in someone’s front room.
The overtly decorative nature of the traditional Victorian pub with its colourful ceramic tiles, coffered ceilings, intricate carved windows and stained glass screens, was never likely to appeal to a minimalist sensibility. Although modernism in its more puritanical mode was not a natural fit for pub design, there are fine examples such as Oliver Hill’s sadly defunct Prospect Inn on the Isle of Thanet and Berthold Lubetkin’s Ravenscroft Arms in Bethnal Green.
Both these attempted to update the traditional signs and symbols of drinking but crucially they retained the pub sign. These are important pieces of folk art combining aspects of heraldry, history, story telling and decoration.
Pub names themselves can be literally descriptive, like the Hole in the Wall, or geographically factual like The Four Counties, which sits at a point between Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire. They can refer to tragic events like the King Canute on Canvey Island that commemorates the floods of 1953, or celebrate banal inventions like the Belisha Beacon Inn, Rainham. The signs themselves are often very beautiful, glorious assemblages of objects, lettering and sculpture, stuck to the outside of the building or swinging from a hangman’s gibbet by the road.
Pubs are also a dying typology. Hundreds close down each week in the UK, a situation which recently led designer David Knight to apply for UNESCO world heritage status for the London Public House. Such protection was as much for the pub’s unique civic role as for its physical qualities. Changing attitudes to drink, social habits, the smoking ban and the cheap availability of booze from supermarkets have conspired to reduce the appeal of the pub and its importance in providing a space for local communities to gather.
Like all architecture, pubs construct social formations as much as they reflect them. As intricate, beautiful and fascinating as they can be, the success of a pub also rests on the people in it. And of course on the quality of the beer. Cheers!
Charles Holland and Elly Ward are co-founding directors of Ordinary Architecture.