Smooth Operator

Rolling out better design

Matt Mullins is a partner in Sand Hill Road hospitality group

We’re almost finished designing our next renovation — a double-height garden room at the rear of the Prahran Hotel. Obviously drunk or high or both when they conceived it, the guys at Techne Architects are planning on stacking massive concrete water pipes on top of each other nine metres high, filling the outside edge with glass, building booths on the inside, and making stairs and landings that let you walk up into each pipe, from where you can sip beers and eat burgers, looking down into the garden on the inside and the street on the outside, wondering why no-one ever thought of it before. That’s right, it’s never been done before. Anywhere in the world. And guess what? There’s a reason it’s never been done before anywhere in the world. Its f**king expensive! Architecture that’s never been done before anywhere in the world tends to be very, very difficult. Cos until it’s been done a few hundred times, no one quite knows how it works.
But while our architects are busily trying to work out how to do it, and our builders are busily working out how much it’ll cost, and my partners are busily working out how we’re going to pay for it, I’m busily working out how to make the venue safe for our punters. For several years now, we’ve been working with Police, our managers, and other publicans to make our pubs as safe as possible. One of the big things we’re working on is the design and layout of our venues.
When we started 13 years ago, hospitality design was all about ‘opening up’. We wanted big rooms, big bars, big gardens. We wanted to look from the front door to the back door without anything blocking our view. We wanted to see every chick in the joint — and make sure they could see us. We wanted to stand in one large seething group in the middle of one large bar, and go right off. Melbourne’s tight, pokey Victorian-era pubs were especially ripe for opening — we smashed into walls like they were piñatas. Then about five years ago we began to notice something: these large open spaces could be dangerous. They’d become mosh-pits. There was no modulation, no breakout, no intimacy, no way of separating groups and individuals. At the same time, we noticed punters increasingly attracted to smaller, more intimate spaces. And we started thinking maybe we can make safer spaces that are also more attractive, more popular and — by extension — more profitable.
We sat down recently with researchers from Turning Point, the peak drug and alcohol research body in Victoria, to discuss design that makes pubs safe. There’s a long list and it’s constantly evolving, but here are a few of the big ones:
We all remember the last time we were in a beer barn. It was probably the late ’90s in King Street or King’s Cross. Or it was last year anywhere in Central Queensland. Either way, the beer barn was big, open, had no furniture and pretty much just sold beer… maybe some Bundy.… and the occasional Illusion Shaker. And it was dangerous. The venues we design now look very different. We avoid large open spaces, breaking-up our rooms with screens, half-walls, large pendants, curtains, and furniture. Punters still like to see the whole of the venue, but they’re happy to have it revealed to them in small pieces. We still allow for long views, but they’re glimpses now. We make the view more dynamic by layering it with obstacles. We even create sightlines from level to level, giving context to each floor of the venue. Overall, this tends to add intimacy to the venue and to a punter’s experience of it. People form small groups for more personal interaction, that break-up and reform as the night progresses.
We all know the theory about drinking on an empty stomach. I’ve always assumed it’s true — in my experience it is. But even if having food in your belly didn’t help you handle your booze, the act of eating certainly does. Groups of people taking time out of stand-up drinking to sit together and eat, make for a far safer pub. It slows down the trajectory of a night. Sitting, eating, talking can take the temperature down. We’ve found that this is true not only for the people actually eating. We’ve found that a group of people eating together not only moderates their own volume and behaviour, but that of the people around them, who are less likely to fire up when there’s a group eating a metre away. So we’ve started building tables and booths right in amongst bar areas. We now serve food to every part of our venues — every seat, every bar, every bar table.
People are attracted to bars — always have been, always will be. But large groups of people around a bar can encourage risky behaviour — pushing, yelling, arguing. We design our bars to be more efficient, allowing people to get in and away quicker. We limit the space in front of a bar to a few metres — enough for one or two people to wait, and for traffic to pass behind. Beyond that point we place furniture, screens and booths, so the crowd that inevitably gathers at the bar never grows too large, and is never far away from sitting groups and diners.
There’s something about the great outdoors. Maybe it’s the fresh air. Maybe it’s the greenery. Maybe it’s the whole hippie ‘communing with nature’ thing. We find gardens, courtyards and balconies are great break-out spaces. When people move outside from a busy, loud, hot bar they invariably slow down, quieten down and relax. So we ensure every floor, every bar and ideally every room in our pubs have easy access to an outdoor space.
We all love a dance, but we also know dancefloors can create trouble, even in a pub. We make sure our dancefloors have egress in multiple directions, allowing people to break-out easily and quickly. We don’t run nightclubs, so we keep our dancefloors small in floor area, and try to create volume and space with high ceilings.
If the safety of our patrons wasn’t a good enough reason to look into these ideas, here’s a few more: they make a better pub. They make us busier. They make us money. Its a no-brainer.

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