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Setting the bar for change

Salvaged vehicles and shipping containers are quirky, convenient abodes for bars, offices, even an inviting guest-room

That’s Food is a bar in London’s Mercato Metropolitano, set out in an old camper decked with vintage paraphernalia. Photo by Geetika Jain
That’s Food is a bar in London’s Mercato Metropolitano, set out in an old camper decked with vintage paraphernalia. Photo by Geetika Jain

Bars tend to be eye-catching spaces, with translucent bottles of alcohol and shapely-stem glasses all arranged in fetchingly neat rows, glimmering in back-lit voltage. Yet there are few things as winsome as a bar set inside a vehicle.

I first came across vintage cars posing as bars in Hungary, in one of Budapest’s legendary rom kocsma, or ruin pubs. A handful of these have sprung up spontaneously since the 1980s within derelict, Unesco- protected buildings in the Jewish Quarter. The families that own these buildings, which were bombed during World War II, still await funding for restoration. Meanwhile, these large spaces are being put to excellent use as dramatically decorated drinking dens that also double up as music and art venues. Covered in murals and laden with retro furniture and all manner of props gathered from antique markets, these ruin pubs are wonderfully atmospheric.

Salvaged vehicles lend a dash of paprika to these spaces, particularly the classic cars, vans and trucks converted into bars. Their hoods and boots pop open to reveal stashes of alcohol reachable by the bartenders who operate from cabins equipped with mixer taps, icemakers and cash registers. The seats become sofas and chairs to lounge on, and the steering wheels turn into charming table tops.

Also read: Home hospitality in the Faroe Islands

The upcycling of vehicles is a positive trend not just because it stokes the imagination but because it’s also in tune with the concept of sustainable living. A vehicle that has come to the end of its natural life can be given longevity as a bunk bed, a writing den or even a tiny home. It’s about turning a part of a scrapheap into a thing of worth and beauty.

In London’s Mercato Metropolitano, an enormous, vibrant space with indoor and outdoor kiosks, people enjoy cuisine from all over the world, including Uzbek, Korean and Vietnamese dishes. Even within this stylish space spangled with bright lights and suffused in foliage, the standout stalls are set in vehicles. One of them, That’s Food, is a bar set out in an old camper with vintage paraphernalia. People head over to elevate the moment with Negronis, Bloody Marys and Mojitos, and those images.

Churchill, a small town in Manitoba, Canada, is a spot frequented by nature and wildlife lovers keen to see and photograph creatures that live between the Arctic and the tundra, such as polar bears, wolves, moose, caribou, foxes and wolverines. It is also a perfectly good place to look for the aurora borealis in the dark winters. Large-scale murals created by 16 street artists as part of Sea Walls, an art project, have turned the public spaces into an outdoor gallery. The most spectacular installation is in a Curtiss C-46 Commando aircraft that has been left where it crashed on a mound of rocks. Its entire shell, inside and out, as well as the broken wing, forms the backdrop of a beautifully painted mural.

Also read: Bob Marley, the Rastafarians and a planet-friendly philosophy

Around 1980, architects and builders began recognising the potential of shipping containers too. The reasonably priced, stackable and environmentally friendly intermodal units proved to be great structural material, allowing housing, storage or office projects involving them to be completed in very little time.

Container City in London’s Trinity Buoy Wharf is a great example of how unused shipping containers were given a new lease of life. Crane-lifted from the dockyards nearby, they have been repurposed into offices, boutiques, workshops and storage spaces. The 40x8x8ft corrugated steel boxes are light yet extremely strong. They can easily be stacked on top of each other and are connected via a series of tunnels and stairwells made from the same container boxes. They are bolstered by simple plaster boards, electric wiring, plumbing and passive insulation, and enhanced with windows and terraces. Painted in bright colours and stacked so that they face different directions, they have tremendous optic appeal.

Containers can even be the answer to providing toilets in crowded areas, storing hay and farm implements away from the rain, or setting up makeshift hospitals where there are none in the hinterland.

Also read: The movable chattel houses of Barbados

When selecting a vehicle for conversion, make sure the chassis is not rusted and the tyres can be plumped with air or grass. Old military trucks, motorboats, wooden fishing boats, caravans, buses, vans and three-wheeler scooters can morph into the most unusual spaces. Get innovative with skylights, sliding roofs and winchable hinged sides that can be raised to let in the views.

At her farmhouse in Delhi, a friend has converted an old haulage truck into a guest house, complete with a bedroom, kitchenette and toilet. Parked under a leafy arbour, it looks incredibly inviting and every guest hopes to clamber up and stay in it. The gaudy paintwork, hanging shoe (to ward off the evil eye) and the painted words, OK TATA, HORN PLEASE, USE DIPPER AT NIGHT, are intact. There is also an original couplet, coined by the previous owner and driver: “Ameeron ki zindagi biscuit aur cake par, gareebon ki zindagi steering aur brake par (The lives of the rich are about biscuit and cake and the lives of the poor, about steering and brake)”. The colourful character is still in touch with my friend and I am told he never fails to pull out his mobile phone and show photographs of his converted mehbooba (lover) to anyone willing to spare a moment.

Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world. She can be followed on Instagram @Geetikaforest

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