Gus Alexander England’s smoking ban comes into force in July, but it won’t be a problem until chilly October. And then, just you watch some bright spark invent a smokers’ pod to stick on to pubs
I’ve just spent a week in Edinburgh – a much more European city than London in many ways. It still has lots of proper shops, bars and cafes for a start. Perhaps it has rather more emporiums offering the unusual combination of cashmere cardigans and single malts than anyone really needs, but it is a welcome relief from the chainisation of English shopping.
I had always realised that Scots were far hardier than us milk-sop Sassenachs, but I was still impressed by the large numbers of people eating and drinking outside. Global warming notwithstanding, January is a pretty cold month to be sitting round a picnic table in the rain, however many pairs of knickers you wear under your kilt.
After a day or two, it dawned on me that these people were not camped out there in the dark because they were hard. They were there because they were smokers, and therefore outlaws these past nine months.
The last time we’d stayed in the home of Britain’s most expensive public building, our hotel served breakfast in a finely wrought mahogany gallery cantilevered over the bar. Perhaps 8.15am is not a remarkable time for a Scotsman to be having his first pint of lager in front of the television, but it was definitely too early for us to cope with the smouldering Marlboro Reds seeping through the floor beneath us.
A few days after I got back to London, I found myself at a cafe in Victoria. When a man at the next table lit up, it seemed like a very hostile gesture. It was as shocking as if he’d suddenly pulled a canary out of his pocket and strangled it.
Despite the best efforts of all those M&E engineers toiling away for the likes of All Bar One, there seems to be no shortage of pubs where a miasma of nicotine pervades every cubic millimetre. Perhaps they aren’t quite as bad as the old smoking carriages on the tube, where one felt like a test beagle, but they are still a good reason to seek out Victorian pubs with their lung-sparing tall ceilings.
Sooner or later, someone is going to come up with a non-enclosed enclosure that will enable pubs to accommodate smokers
Indeed, until relatively recently, pub refurbishment teams made use of a thick gloss paint called, not surprisingly, Nicotina, which was the ceiling equivalent of lead patination oil.
The brewing industry is not primarily a charitable operation and even after 1 July, there will still be money to be taken off people who like to smoke in bars. By the end of October, it will be too cold for them to stand puffing on the pavements or sit gasping in the gardens. Sooner or later, someone in R&D is going to come up with the equivalent of the overspill marquee, a sort of non-enclosed enclosure that will enable pubs to accommodate smokers.
For 30 years, the principal version of the overspill building type has been the all-purpose “heritage” conservatory. This is a building type that has been designed to look just as at home (or ill at ease) on the back of a Georgian rectory as a thirties semi. These masterpieces of the salesman’s art often totally destroy the amenity of the sitting room they are jammed up against at the same time as they quadruple the household heating bills. But they do look good in the photos.
More recently, there has been a spate of lightweight glass structures on the front of buildings. Glazed-in garage forecourts, transport terminals, theatrical and artistic venues and any building by Richard Rogers Partnership. These structures are often beautifully detailed and exploit the contrast between the polychromatic solidity of the original masonry building and the ethereal nature of the glass and steel structure poised against it.
Of course, there is never any shortage of architects choosing not to adopt a perfectly good solution like this if it doesn’t allow them to demonstrate their design brilliance. For 150 years, JW Wild’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green was a gorgeous Victorian shed. Clearly, the management needed to expand the foyer and pack in some mobility toilets. Anyone would have thought it was crying out for a lightweight transparent enclosure to accommodate this. Instead, the architect has jammed a giant box onto its front that resembles nothing so much as a tile exhibit at a trade fair.
It will be curious to see which comes first: the realisation that alcohol can quite easily be enjoyed in public without its 450-year-old association with nicotine, or the spawning of pod-style structures offered by brewing behemoths who realise there is a premium chargeable if patrons can continue to indulge the tradition without falling foul of the nanny state.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London