How many bars can you fit into one building?

Teviot Row House is one of the University of Edinburgh’s main student hubs, located on the central campus and a host to a wide variety of student and university events. From ceilidhs and trivia nights to sports parties and comedy functions, this multi-storied, large-stone building boasts a wonderful number of rooms for studying, eating, laughing, procrastinating, chilling, and seriously watching your favorite football clubs duke it out in the championship. Excitingly, Teviot Row provides a fascinating study of architecture and space vis-a-vis its six – yes I said, six – bars: the Sports Bar, the Underground, the Library Bar, the New Amphion, the Lounge Bar, and the Loft Bar/Roof Terrace (there’s also the Debating Hall, where large functions like university ceilidhs are held). Each of these bars/cafe areas is decorated and furnished to create certain atmospheres, thus attracting certain members of the university community. Though all housed in the same one Teviot Row and geared toward the same general audience – students (and staff) at the university – each space is distinct, encouraging some things and subtly discouraging others.

As described by Harbison in Eccentric Spaces, architecture is simultaneously freeing and controlling. When we are in some places, we may feel free to do and be something we may not elsewhere, but we are also constantly aware of the constraints placed upon us by certain implied rules a space constructs. For example, I can’t run at a full spring inside my house because the walls are too close to one another or my furniture gets in the way, but I can sing at the top of my lungs without bothering anyone or worrying that it is not my place to do this here. Breaking this down even further, the relationship between our actions or levels of comfort are also determined by who we are with, where we are, and what we are doing; singing loudly may be appropriate while I’m alone cooking supper in my kitchen, but at the dinner table with guests, it may be frowned upon or feel out of place. Note that whether defined by social norms, cultural expectations, or even the layout of an area or practice, the feeling of what we should or should not do, the behavioral expectations and guidelines, always exist in and rely on the space and place.

William Tozer in “A Theory of Making” points out to the architect that architecture is required to provide comfort and security, a description we would often attribute to our homes, or the idea of an ideal home (which I remind you is a physical place whether we can envision a specific space or not). The architect can do his best to create a space that engenders a certain aura of relaxation or at least protection (from the outside elements, from other people, from derisive looks or consternation), but Tozer says that the architect has little control over what the building actually says. He purports that buildings cannot truly embody something because of their nature of being able to change, especially in a city like Edinburgh where buildings are constantly repurposed. However, this is not to say that spaces can take on and create expectations and social structures enacted by the people within them and also that these enacted attitudes cannot be shaped by the spaces in which they occur. This is a dialectic relationship in which the space and the inhabitants create and influence one another.

Teviot Row House, Sports Bar. Drawn Jan 25, 2017
Teviot Row House, Sports Bar. Drawn Jan 25, 2017

Harbison tells us that individuality is expressed in different ways according to where one chooses to be, and, with six different bars to choose from, Teviot Row offers students a wide range of spaces to occupy and thus identities to enact. When I am in the Sports Bar, even if I take no notice of the sports channels on one of the three-plus televisions or the pool tables in the center of the room, I feel a certain sense of, for lack of a better word, sportiness. The hardwood floors, simple decoration, pool-table lighting, and tall bar-style chairs and tables lends a sort of man-cave, sporty attitude to the space. Being in it makes me feel like I know what the commentators on the TV are talking about or that by being in this designated sports space, I am somehow more athletically aware than I may be because I am surrounded by other people who surely are.

The Library Bar creates a very different atmosphere, with music consistently pumped through discreetly hidden speakers; a combination of tables, booths, easy chairs, and buffets to sit at alone or in groups; and shelves of books behind old glass doors lining every wall. It immediately comes across as a versatile social space, where I’m welcome to either study quietly with headphones in or sit with a group of friends laughing as loudly and rambunctiously as we want. I am welcome to eat and drink or not, though the menus on the table and the easy-access bar on the bottom floor of the open, two-story space certainly encourage me to take a break and enjoy some chips, soup, or nachos. Because of its size and the nature of the space, the Library Bar is a popular site for meeting up with friends and hosting student union events like the weekly trivia night. A TV posted on the wall behind the bar, in full view of anyone sitting on either level, constantly flashes ads for events, groups, charities, and random happenings on campus. The entire space begs people to be involved and makes it clear that anyone is welcome to exist at any volume they want – as long as they don’t mind if others are being loud too.

The Library Bar. Drawn Jan 25, 2017.
The Library Bar. Drawn Jan 25, 2017.

A sort of partner to the Library Bar is the New Amphion, a multipurpose space with many round tables that give the impression of a sit-down restaurant coupled with the presence of a small lounge-like area with low coffee tables and soft arm chairs and sofas. Here the sonic landscape is constructed unassisted by a soundtrack mainly by the people in it as they enjoy food or snacks from the small cafe. This space I will always associate with my first taste of haggis, neeps, and tatties, though that is not the reason I find it less attractive as a study space than perhaps the Library or Sports Bars. The atmosphere here is much more refined and less pub-like than the Library Bar, with its large bright windows, tall clean walls, and simpler sparser decoration. The name of the space differentiates it from its Teviot counterparts; Amphion was a Greek musician who supposedly used his lyre as a construction tool, encouraging walls into existence through the charm of music. Even without knowing this, the fact that the word “bar” is excluded from the name indicates that this space is supposed to feel different. It isn’t supposed to feel like a bar, but instead a restaurant or cafe, and this is supported by its openness, high ceilings, well-lit spaces, and regular-height tables and chairs (no high buffets here). As it fills with more people, I become more comfortable with talking loudly or laughing or even sneezing, but as an empty room, there is very little to suggest that it’s fine for me to do anything other than sit and study or converse quietly. This room is an interesting example of the fluidity of space and how its occupancy really determines what is allowed. Even if the room is empty and I disturb no one, a sneeze or loud exclamation seems very out of place because it feels unrefined according to the cultural references and norms established architecturally.

New Amphion, view from balcony seating looking down into main seating area filled with tables, chairs, and mid-afternoon diners. Drawn January 26, 2017
New Amphion, view from balcony seating looking down into main seating area filled with tables, chairs, and mid-afternoon diners. Drawn January 26, 2017

Teviot Row House offers students a great many options for places to study, hang out, and host/attend events. The venues are each catered and designed to create a specific atmosphere and personality, theoretically allowing for every student to find a space in which they are comfortable and welcome. Cultural norms and social expectations guide this process and also lead students to feel differently according to where they are. In essence, we are given the opportunity to express our individuality and collectivity simultaneously. By being in the Teviot Row House, we are asserting our identities as students, sitting in a soft arm chair in the Lounge Bar because, by golly, we are entitled to be there. By choosing to go to the Sports Bar instead of the Library Bar, we are making a concerted decision about which part of our personality we wish to showcase. Our placement broadcasts something about who we are and how we operate, just as the places to which we go tell us how to act while we are there.

Teviot can create a sense of belonging and cultural affinity in a student visiting Scotland by catering also to the pervasive idea of pub culture. Where else can I go to a single building and choose from multiple bars as places to study? asks the American in me. Yes, I studied at the Library Bar today and, if I want, I can feel so in touch with my inner Hay as a result.

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