During the last election campaign, the video circulated by Ciudadanos, or Ciutadans or whatever, was much talked about. In a bar, a group of people talk about the economic situation. The metaphor, a bit coarse -there’s even the freeloader with a pony tail who spends everything on the slot machine- got lots of criticism in Twitter because it compared society with a bar. It isn’t that the ad had no questionable aspects (in this theoretical micro-society there’s no older women, for instance), but the reductio ad tabernae (“in bars there’s daft people, so bars are a daft place”), besides showing some traces of classism, ends with any possible reflection on the space bars have in our cities and in our lives.
Children of modern times
German cultural critic Wolfgang Schivelbusch writes in his Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants: “the counter appeared for the first time in English restaurants at the beginning of the 19th century, and in Anglo-American areas it was called ‘bar.’ With this new piece of furniture, the restaurant definitely lost its homely character. The bar, as the counter, couldn’t be found in private homes […] But the counter-turned-bar would soon acquire a different meaning apart from the commercial one. Standing next to the bar became the typical way of having a drink in such establishments, which would eventually be called ‘bars’ […] The fact that the bar was first successful in the taverns of England’s greatest cities, at the beginning of the 19th century, marks it as a genuine industrial revolution product. […] Liqueur wasn’t consumed slowly, in short sips, but abruptly and all at once. The process is so quick that it can be done standing up.”
Unlike what happens in restaurants and other places serving food, which satisfy the physical or intellectual need to eat, or what happens at cafés, represented as places in which to engage in stimulating conversation, the bar serves other purposes, less clear, the least important of which isn’t intoxicating oneself. But there’s more. Amazing The Bar of Great Expectations, autobiographical bildungsroman written by journalist JR Moeringher, explains this very well in its initial lines: “We went there looking for anything we needed. When we were thirsty, of course, when we were hungry. We were there when we were happy, to celebrate, and when we were sad, to feel sorry for ourselves. We went there after weddings and funerals, looking for something to soothe our nerves. We went there when we didn’t know what we needed, in the hope that someone would tell us. We went there looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or someone who had disappeared, because sooner or later everybody turned up there. We went there especially when we needed to be found.”
Among all those purposes, we find also political ones. Engels describes a first English proletariat in a permanent drunken state (let’s remember that another successful industrial revolution product was the column still, which allowed for a great quantity of alcohol to be distilled at a very low price). Another Marxist theorist, Karl Kautsky, sees the very clear role of bars as the centre of working class activities when he writes that “for the proletarians, such an abstinence from alcohol means missing any social gatherings; the proletariat has no room at their disposal, they can’t receive their friends in their living room; if they want to meet in order to discuss common problems, they need to go to a tavern. Bourgeois politics can avoid that, but not proletarian politics. […] Without the tavern, the German proletariat has no social, or political, life.”
This illustration by Thomas Onwhyn dating from mid 19th century, explains quite well how bars appeared as a kind of brief counter in gin shops during the industrial revolution.
…so great to have a chat!
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined, at the end of the 1980s, the term ‘third space’ to designate those places -not only bars, but also places such as hairdresser’s, bowling parlours or even malls- which were neither citizen’s homes nor their working spaces, but a sort of common agora in which civil society is articulated. For Oldenburg, these third spaces are great social equalizers in which humanity meets with the main purpose of socialising. In these places, conversation is the main activity, and it’s meant to be a game anyone can play in equal conditions (bores are the example that Oldenburg uses to describe conversational democracy in bars). A third space is the place where you can expect to meet people you know, and where a stranger can become part of the group through the simple method of becoming a regular and engaging in conversation. Oldenburg highlights that third spaces have a certain homely feeling, without belonging to the home sphere, and that very often they don’t look exceptional or sophisticated.
“When we’re away on holiday, at some point we end up at a McDonald’s, because even if we don’t like it, it’s familiar to us. And it’s evident that someone has read Oldenburg and has applied this up and down to the Starbucks model, with its sofas, for instance, although the franchise is changing a bit lately,” says architect Ada Yvars, from MYAA Mangera Yvars Architects. “But bars are changing along with society. Before, a bar was never a working place, and now we go there with our laptop. We’re at the other end of the world and check with a bar’s Wi-Fi where to go eat instead of asking our neighbour at the bar.” Besides, Yvars pinpoints, “bars are no longer great equalizers. Now we’re more and more segmented by what we consume, and the bar is no longer the great equalizer of the town square.” Data agree with Yvars. A report recently published by market studies company Nielsen reveals that the offer is changing. While consumption at nighttime has decreased, we drink more beer and liqueur during the day. The same report exposes that most consumers first research any information on the Internet, or leave trace of the places they visit, and people are not so faithful as before when it comes to places, they rather look for concrete offers, adequate for each occasion.
Yvars explains that alcohol is always present within a culture, and there are always spaces to consume it that are different depending on the society and their attitude towards it. She tells me for instance that, “in Great Britain, the pub is a structure totally away from the street, a world within its doors, while here we prefer terraces. Here we have adopted the idea of the pub because we find it exotic. And on the contrary, it’s difficult to export the concept of a terrace open to the street to Great Britain. It’s not only to do with the weather, it has also to do with our attitude towards alcohol, if we consider, for instance, whether under 18s can drink or not. But actually this space is a public space. Here the roles of society disappear and a new social world is created with statuses that are different from the real world ones. It isn’t more egalitarian, it’s just that hierarchies change and new invented roles appear.” For instance, the figure of the barman, halfway between the referee and the shaman, because he provides us with intoxicating substances, and who’s often dressed with a uniform that distinguishes him from the rest of the community, a figure evoking archetypes such as Temperance or Magician tarot cards. But inside the bar itself, space is also a hierarchy. “It’s fundamental to think where you’re going to place the bar, to think whether people will want to sit down and stay or if you prefer them to come and go quickly, if dishes are simple of elaborate… Two bars opened at the same time next to my office. One is always full, and the other always empty. The second one had an interesting concept: they placed a big table at the centre to share, and it was always empty. Now they’ve changed it for smaller tables and more people go. The distribution of the space modifies the perception of the space.” Is there a clash between public and private spaces in phenomena such as the botellón or terraces? “Terraces are fundamental within the public space, and I think it’s right for the public space to demand money from people making money out of it. It’s very important for it to follow certain rules so as not to become the shabbiest thing in the world” Indeed, let’s hope that the third space, that space where everybody knows your name, will never become the shabbiest place in the world.
Television understood better than anyone the concept of the third space. At Friends‘ Central Perk we see homely elements such as the sofa, while at Moe’s Tavern we find a far from sophisticated surrounding, and regulars.