As we know, the British are obsessed with the weather. So why are we unable to respond with any kind of style when it rises above 30 degrees for two days on the trot?
A couple of weeks ago I was in the piazza outside the Roman arena in Verona. We were sitting under an canvas awning sipping prossecco and watching the world go by. It was boiling hot and the evening was filled with honking horns and flagwaving Italians who 20 minutes before had put Australia away with a last-minute penalty.
What was surprising was that the jubilant Italians were waving from scooters, or leaning out of circling cars, and despite the fact that this was a pedestrian precinct, the combination of red, white and green flags and various parts of the Fiat oeuvre didn’t seem to be anomalous.
This is something we don’t seem able to do in Britain: to deal with hot weather or cater for the life al fresco. It is not just a temperature thing, because we share a similar climate with one-third of northern France, and they seem to be able to do both effortlessly. Obviously, we are getting better at it – which, like many things in Britain, means easing up on licensing. Where our Continental friends seem to be able to provide decorative and well-organised places where people can eat and drink under cover outside, all we seem to manage is to drag indoor furniture onto the pavement for half-naked ginger louts to sprawl over. Or, further up the social scale, hundreds of young things scrumming around pub entrances, with the outer fringe teetering on the edge of granite curbs 5 mm away from surging traffic. To be fair, there is one place the Brits do do outdoor eating very well: inside shopping centres. Whether it is the Italian trattoria or the Mexican cantina, the ambience, decor, menu, waiter attire and background music is perfect. You can even watch life go by (that is, other people shopping). Unfortunately, it is not actually outside.
I suppose it’s a cultural thing. In Britain “outside” means roughing it. Living outdoors still means crawling around in tiny tents with water slopping around in the groundsheets and risking immolation by Primus stove.
We can all remember what a shock it was when we first realised that the French had something entirely different in mind when they adopted le camping.
What we need is a sort of 21st-century global warming version of the winter fairs that took place on the Thames when it froze
The key thing is being under cover, and it is only in hot weather that shade comes to have any value. Pub gardens are very nice, but shade is not part of the deal in the way it needs to be. The other key thing is having to share outside space with cars. Here it seems to be all or nothing in a way that does not appear to be the case elsewhere. The Italian cars with the football flags did not strike too discordant a note in the otherwise pedestrian environment. You could see that at certain times of the day cars were allowed, yet the city is very much for people and shops are catering to people on foot, and they are thriving. I was in Dorchester recently and that is a pretty town. But replacing the tarmac with interlocking paviours just does not do it: the shops look marooned, and any amount of planting baskets and heritage cast-iron benchery is not going to compensate for the element of bustle that gets lost when cars are removed completely.
When I design outdoor spaces for people in who live in towns I’m always keen to build in tables and seats, even at the expense of greenery. If it is easy to eat and drink outside, people will enjoy doing so at the slightest glimpse of sunshine. If all your folding chairs are locked deep in the basement you practically have to wait for standpipes to be opened before you believe it’s hot enough to go and get them out.
Climate change is clearly here to stay. Okay, we’re going to need as much energy to keep cool as we used to use to keep warm but at least 50 years of cheap travel has broadened our civic expectations. What we need is some sort of planned flexibility so that when the temperature reaches a certain level, certain streets become closed to traffic at certain times of day, and pubs and restaurants are allowed to informally colonise the pavements. A sort of 21st-century global warming version of the winter fairs that took place on the Thames when it froze. It’s not going to be easy to get it right, but at least it won’t be very expensive, or disruptive.
This week the Italians will be whooping it up more than ever – and those ecstatic, flag-waving fans can enjoy a much jollier backdrop for their celebrations than Sven’s gang would ever have found here.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London