The Inside Story Of The Melbourne Bar Just Named The Best-Designed In The World

There are three key elements to a pub, according to Justin Northrop.

“A pub isn’t a pub unless it’s got a front bar a beer garden and affordable every day food,” says the architect, who gave Melbourne’s The Prahan hotel such an astonishing makeover, it won a prestigious global architecture award, chosen by 300 of his peers, for best bar/nightclub design.

You could call it the best-designed bar in the world.

The 1940s two-storey art deco pub is owned by the Sand Hill Road hospitality group; one of five Melbourne watering holes in the stable, including the Richmond Club Hotel, Bridge Hotel, Post Office Bar Pizza and Holliava.

Techne Architects Nicholas Travers and Justin Northrop.

They approached Justin and his partner in Techne Architects, Nicholas Travers, a few years back to revamp the place, having already collaborated and built a high level of understanding and trust.

“We tend to know the ingredients they need in their venues,” Justin said.

It was a two-stage project, beginning with the makeover of the original pub’s interior. Then attention turned to the back, a low, 1970s lean-to-like structure with small beer garden abutting residential neighbours.

“It was a terrible space. The beer garden annoyed the neighbours and didn’t connect with rest of pub and upstairs had the same problem, including access issues,” Justin said.

The space was also cavernous and they wanted to make it more intimate.

The Techne pair spent several months looking for solutions. They considered trying to reiterate the historic facade, but scrapped the idea.

“We’re all working in a context and whatever happens, so you have to be sympathetic to what you’re working next to, but it doesn’t have to be emulation. That can lead to a poor outcome because you end up devaluing history because you’re blurring where eras start and stop,” Justin said.

Among a number of 3D models, one used a facade with small slices of pipe.

“It was interesting because it had a link to some of the new motifs at the front of the building,” Justin said. “We started with small, then asked what happens if they’re a bit bigger?

“Then we realised we could do stuff inside the pipes and they’re not just façade. All of a sudden it was inhabited with people and comes to life. It’s not just a hollow architectural gesture. The function validates the form.”

“The fact that you can sit in it and use it for planters makes it different and worthwhile

“It was also a loose reference, that people could choose to make or not, to stacked barrels.”

Among the 17 concrete pipes is booth seating for two, six or 12 people, finished with leather banquettes and timber panelling.

There were other unexpected consequences: “It was a half planned, half lucky outcome, but the acoustics are really good in the pipes, you can sit in it and talk comfortably and for some reason don’t feel as exposed when you’re sitting in them and there’s an ambience from the timbers that softens and warms the spaces,” Justin explains.

It also gave them a mezzanine level, while the internalised beer garden solved the neighbour problem.

“The goal was to make the space a bit more dramatic and connect better with the first floor and the mezzanine makes the journey from A to B a bit more interesting,” Justin says.

Amid the sculptural look, an abundance of plants against the concrete walls blur the lines between interior and exterior spaces, and a collapsible table allows the space to turn into a dance floor.

Justin and Nicholas literally stumbled into the hospitality industry when they opened The Deanery, a CBD laneway wine bar with friends, in 2002. It was also their first design venture together.

“We were green as green and didn’t have any hospitality experience under our belt,” Justin recalls. “We were looking at the space for a client and got excited. It was great fun for us.”

In the 12 years since, their impressive client list has included car show rooms for Porsche, BMW and Mazda, Geelong’s ATO-Centrelink building and an impressive range of hospitality ventures, from Made Group, led by MasterChef George Calombaris, to Frank Camorra’s tapas bar MoVida, and the Guzman y Gomez Mexican and Grill’d burger chains.

And despite the showy aspect to The Prahan, it’s a surprising when Justin tells Business Insider that “not every building needs to make a big statement.”

In fact, he thinks the opposite.

“Buildings should sit quietly in their context and I don’t think that’s valued enough in our profession, but when you’ve got something to say, say it.”

Meanwhile, have a look at all the great things The Prahan has to say.

Photo: Peter Clarke
Photo: Peter Clarke
Photo: Peter Clarke
Photo: Peter Clarke
Photo: Peter Clarke
Photo: Peter Clarke
Photo: Peter Clarke
Photo: Peter Clarke
Photo: Peter Clarke

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