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The Architecture of Routine: Where We Drink

, Cities
Translator Olga Baltsatu

How bars first came to be and what an architect can tell you about them.

Illustration: Anastasia Pozhidaeva

Having a drink after work or arranging a grand Friday alcohol tour: bars have become an important part of leisure for many urbanites. Meanwhile, a two-century long history lies behind the ordinary bar counter, and many details about drinking establishments secretly influence their patrons’ mood and behavior. Strelka Magazine learned how the first bars came about and asked the architect Yulia Ardabyevskaya to speak about how they are designed today.



The first establishments resembling today’s bars appeared in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. It was then that so-called saloons started opening up all over the country. The image of saloons is very familiar due to westerns: a small building, swinging doors, barrels of whiskey, a few tables, and a counter. The latter of these became the key element of bars and later gave their name to the whole institution. The first saloon is believed to have been opened in 1822.

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A saloon in Arizona, 1911 / photo:

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A saloon in Nevada, 1905 / photo:

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Gambling in a saloon, the 1900s / photo:

The saloons of the Wild West were quite minimalistic in terms of decor and were designed for unpretentious visitors. Beer, whiskey, and sometimes a mix of berry liquor and hard alcohol were served there. The guests would gamble and play pool. Sometimes, these establishments hosted boxing matches and even fights between dogs and rats. As the years went by, rules of conduct were accumulated. It was considered impolite to eat large amounts of free food while drinking too little. A stranger coming into the bar was supposed to buy a drink for the person sitting next to him at the counter. Self-service in saloons was quite common: a bartender would put a bottle of the drink ordered on the table in front of the customer and the visitor would pour it into the glass himself. Some bars only let in members of certain nationalities and races, which was usually implied by the name of the bar. A “shamrock” sign clearly conveyed the idea that the saloon was open only for the Irish, and some bars also had “No dogs, no women” signs on their doors.

“NO DOGS, NEGROES, MEXICANS” Lonestar Restaurant Association, Dallas, Texas. Printed “Jim Crow” sign, n.d. Black History Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)

Saloons were spread all over the States. Together with the Wild West’s tough bars, more elegant drinking establishments existed on the East Coast of the country. Lobby bars in hotels, which were open for wealthy travelers, were their urban equivalent.

An American, Jerry Thomas, the creator of the first cocktail recipe book in history (the “BarTender’s Guide”), had his own saloon. He opened the premises in 1951 on Broadway, in the building of Barnum’s American Museum. Thomas paid close attention to the bar’s interior. He also loved mixing cocktails by juggling glasses. He was the person who created and patented the legendary drink, the Blue Blazer, the preparation of which turns into a fire show. Freezing and ice production systems had already been invented by that time, so nothing could stand in the way of the development of cocktail culture in the USA. In 1967, the American bar was part of the USA’s national stand at the international exhibition in Paris, and it started taking over Europe after that.

The architect and founder of the “Streli Molnii” group Yulia Ardabyevskaya talks about how today’s bars are designed

It is difficult to give a clear answer to the question “what is a bar?”. Many establishments combine different functions today, so sometimes it is hard to categorize certain places. It seems like we’re sitting at a table, just like in an ordinary café, but we still realize that we’re in a bar. Alcohol is probably the determining factor. Unlike in a restaurant, in a bar you can just drink and order nothing else.

The presence of a bar counter is not an indicator, as there are similar counters in restaurants, where they have a different purpose, allowing you to wait for a vacant table. However, there are some examples of the opposite. There’s a place called Chainaya in Moscow. Tea&Cocktails, the first iconic “secret” bar in the capital. There’s a very small bar counter that can accommodate about four or five people. Most of the guests sit at tables, many of them eat. But it’s definitely a bar.



Unlike a cafe or a restaurant, the format of a bar allows for more liberties and simplicity. The size may vary: one popular Moscow spot, Santo Spirito, only has room for literally 13 people. The specificity of any bar lies in its atmosphere, which is created by the service, music, lighting, and the staff’s outfits. Whenever we talk about some great bar, we remember how we felt there. And one has to admit: in most cases, it’s the owner’s work that arouses those feelings, not the architecture. For instance, a kittel-like uniform was created for the staff of the Public Bar. Young handsome guys work there, there’s jazz playing, and it seems like you’re in some secret place in New York. The architecture adds to the experience: there’s antique tile, concrete countertop, brass details, a long chandelier above the counter – all designed by the Nowadays agency.

London bar Untitled. A very long table instead of a regular bar counter. One of the walls is made of foil/ photo: Untitled bar / Facebook

Sometimes, all it takes is creating some feature that will make visitors remember the place forever. For example, there’s a bar called “Nikuda ne edem” (“We’re going nowhere”). It’s a space with very high ceilings. It’s generally nice, despite the excessiveness in design and interior. But it has quite a peculiarity: one has to enter it through a small room with racks all over the place. A girl sits there and asks: “where are you going?”. If you can’t think of an answer, the girl points at the sign with the bar’s title. You have to respond: “we’re going nowhere!”, and then the rack is moved and you may access the ladder going down to the bar.



According to my personal observations, the arrangement of furniture is not the only important thing: it’s also the height. For instance, the craft bar Balalayechnaya, which I designed last year, doesn’t have much space, and there are high tables in the main room. That works beautifully: an acquaintance can come up, stand next to you, and talk to you a little. He doesn’t have to sit down for that, because you’re at the same level. Social scenarios are realized easily and casually. When you have regular tables, everyone has to sit, everyone has to have a chair, and that makes it harder to just stop by and chat. That’s why small talk only happens in a certain type of space.

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Drafts of the design of a bar on Petrovka Street by Yulia Ardabyevskaya. Opens at the end of May

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Drafts of the design of a bar on Petrovka Street by Yulia Ardabyevskaya. Opens at the end of May

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Drafts of the design of a bar on Petrovka Street by Yulia Ardabyevskaya. Opens at the end of May

The aforementioned Santo Spirito also had a great solution: there’s a very, very long table in the middle of the main room. One or two people, or a group of people, or several different groups can have drinks sitting at it. The most interesting part is how those groups intertwine with each other. That freedom is very important for bar culture. I think that democracy and adaptivity for the objects in the room should be included in the design. Of course, this shouldn’t be implemented everywhere: some people would prefer being placed somewhere more private in more quiet, intimate spaces.



The bar counter in the Strelka Bar is located in the middle of the room, and that placement is quite inconvenient for the staff. Dirty dishes are washed in the kitchen, so the staff has to take them there, passing by the customers. This has become a nice detail of all the parties: a heroic bartender carrying dishes in a plastic box through the raging crowd. That’s why the bars usually adjoin the storage room.

“Strelka” bar / photo: Strelka Institute

In the beginning, the architects wanted to divide Strelka’s space into three zones: a dancing zone and areas for loud gatherings and quiet sit-downs. The bar counter was supposed to zone the room, which is why it was placed in the center.

Due to this placement of the counter, another interesting effect happens. A customer that is standing on one side of the bar can notice a person on the opposite side, exchange glances with him or her, and that establishes a connection between them. It’s also curious to watch how unevenly the space by the counter is filled in: it happens differently depending on the time and day of the week. I like that multi-scenario approach very much.



The bar counter is the quintessence of everything that is happening in the bar. On the one hand, it acts as a spot for communication, on the other, it’s where the drinks are made and served. In some places, the bartender participates actively in conversations and communicates with the customers, and in others, he’s completely isolated from them, and, figuratively speaking, he remains anonymous. In some bars, the cocktails are made right in front of the customer, while in others, they are mixed below in the bar station, and only then does the bartender put them on the counter. Usually, the establishments’ owners take these things into account; that’s how a unique balance that defines the counter’s width is created.

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McSorley’s Old Ale House, New York / photo: Scott Beale /

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McSorley’s Old Ale House, New York / photo:

The counter’s material is also important. You always feel it, at least subconsciously. In Strelka’s case, it’s a simple wooden countertop, pretty nice to sit at. The countertop in the old Solyanka’s first room was made of copper. Your hands would stick to it all the time, it was cold: at least we’ll always remember it. The more peculiar the countertop’s surface is, the better the “instagram effect” works. The architect and the owner immediately try to make the space more photogenic.



When we say “bar”, I think of a cocktail bar. A beer bar is a completely different story. It implies completely different visual and material associations.

Once I was in one of New York’s oldest bars, McSorley’s Old Ale House. Its founder, John McSorley, opened it when he came to New York in 1854. Trophies and portraits hang on greasy wooden walls. The bar’s entire floor is covered with wood shavings, just like old times. They absorb everything that gets spilled on the floor. They also absorb dirt and unpleasant smells. The old shavings are regularly replaced by new ones. I am still not sure how functional this is now. A very tough guy was standing at the bar. I asked whether they had some cherry beer and he strictly answered: “Light or dark”. That’s it. Only two kinds of beer, which they make themselves: either light or dark. There are large, sticky tables in the room; no reservations, no intimacy. Places like that must have some kind of anti-vandal property about them because their main audience is heavy drinkers. That’s why a simplicity of shapes and surfaces is embedded in beer history.

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