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The Vacuum Issue 3 spacer Issue 3
What Future For The New Belfast Superbars?
by Mark Hackett
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In the early 1990's I spent a few years in Glasgow and Berlin, cities we are often told that share some resonance with Belfast, hard gritty streets, industry, rebellious workforces, dividing walls and a good bar culture. Glasgow and Berlin are, of course, real cities of culture and - well.
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There are two distinct bar cultures in all of these cities, the pub and the modern bar/cafe. In Berlin the traditional pub is the kneipe, in the former west zone (largely rebuilt after the war) these often resemble our new or refurbished bars from the 1950's onwards and were often decorated by the barman's 'mate'. Many of the traditional Victorian bars in Glasgow and Belfast survived this onslaught of fake mahogany, Axminster carpet and corner booths covered in some hideous material that Hans Blix should take a look at. Some people look back fondly on this era where the décor invited - and often received - vomit and cigarette burns. Older 'clubbed together' bars like Kellys and The Rotterdam managed a studied heterogeneity and robust honesty.
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As Berlin was reunited bar/cafe culture spread to the former east, airy bars that serve simple food from breakfast through to - hmmm - breakfast again. Cheap properties below old apartment blocks were converted overnight, the décor was simple, modern and unpretentious. In summer the bar takes over the generous pavement outside until the midnight chill sets in. Other bars were refurbished to a more conscious design or theme, live maggots under the glass bar counter and so on. The Berlin bar scene is healthy in that the bars are small, have to be 'discovered' and generally last for years with a constant or slowly changing clientele.
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By contrast the half-life of a new bar in Belfast seems to be about three months. The latest new bar is swamped however, within three months the original crowd will have disappeared - notice how the dress code changes when times get hard. How can this turn around be sustained financially? The answer lies in our prodigious drinking culture; despite the considerable expense in refurbishing these 'super bars' the payback period is obviously calculated in months rather than years.
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The gradual loss of authentic Victorian bars to this quick turnover culture has been disturbing and seemingly unstoppable. The few that now remain seem to have been rediscovered and may yet survive. The Kitchen Bar however will suffer the ultimate insult, swallowed up to reappear in the bowels of the Victoria Square. (A shopping mall that will inexplicability receive massive funding from the Belfast Regeneration Office despite the fact that all branches of Planning Service opposed the project)
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The history of Belfast's new bars can be traced to buildings such as 'Cutter's Wharf'. When they are new built and freestanding don't expect bars to look like bars, 'The Edge' in Mays Meadow looks curiously like a Church Hall extension. In the early 90's bars were mainly renovated and extended versions of the exported Irish theme bar. Then they were extended and renovated again. An Archaeological thesis might establish the original structure of the Eglantine Inn which has had five makeovers in my memory - one of which I missed completely.
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Morrisons was a typical example of the 'ye olde' theme bar until it's recent and swift 'modernisation'. It seems significant that tasteful 'modern' bars are now de rigour. 'Taste is a vice' said the painter, Degas; The style of bars like Apartment and Irene & Nan's are more influenced by second hand sources - magazines like Wallpaper and Elle Decoration - than by modernist architecture itself. Ta-tu is the only modern bar that makes it into a full-blooded street elevation. When it first opened it appeared like an expanded and abstracted traditional Irish bar - the long bar, bare standing space and 'snugs' (with abstract hanging gas lights).
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The expensive materials and the high quality of finish in all of these bars seem obscene when we compared with the lack of expenditure on our schools and hospitals today.
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To an architect this current supremacy and love of 'modern' bars is painfully ironic in a city that currently permits the building of a ten storey mock 'historic' bungalow on it's main square. This paradox extends to many aspects of life in Northern Ireland, we are obsessively in love with our cars - only the newest model - we travel widely and wax lyrically about Barcelona, Bilbao, Berlin, but seem incapable of demanding what we admire there - except in the style (not content) of our bars.
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Interestingly Berlin 'exported' most it's modern architects in 1933, many passed through London, the English first tested the new modern architecture on the animals of London Zoo (the Penguin Pool by Berthold Lubetkin). Nobody seems to have pointed out the irony of this situation to Prince Charles when he began his purge of modern architects in the 1980's. So what did these architects do? They designed cafes, bars and clothes shop interiors for a decade, and often they were invited to build real buildings in Berlin. London eventually dropped the style police and started dealing with the real urban issues.
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So don't expect Belfast to sort out its real problems for a few decades yet. However maybe it's appropriate that we re-evaluate the city in our bars, cafés and shops; these are, in the apparent absence of any other space, our only public realm.
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www.hackett-hall.com
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What Future For The New Belfast Superbars?
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