Beginning with the simple table from which they take their name, banks developed into one of the most splendid urban building types as they sought to reassure depositors. Today they are on the verge of disappearing altogether
Since the early 1970s there has been a decisive turn from representational architecture in certain sectors of society in which it had once predominated. While corporations continued to commission distinctive headquarters; hospitals, social housing (to the extent that it was built at all) and even government buildings have, on the whole, rejected presence in favour of a certain abjectness of both ambition and execution. That this is a consequence of Thatcherite-Reaganite ideology is fairly obvious: given the ultimate causes of this race to the bottom, it is appropriate then that banks should be the bearers of the winner’s trophy.
All are familiar with the utter phenomenological misery conjured by a visit to a high-street bank today, with their threadbare carpets, strip lights, battered false ceilings and (hardly surprising, this) sullen staff. By contrast, the banks of the Victorian era – now frequently preserved for posterity, in the UK at least, by the benevolence of Mr JD Wetherspoon – are Aladdin’s caves of mass-produced ornament. The recent parsimony of these institutions has doubtless improved their profit margins but it has rendered the lives of all those who have to use them more unpleasant in the process.
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Source: Alex Schaefer
With this hair-shirt tendency, banking returns to its origins (albeit for quite different reasons). The moral opprobrium under which the practice originated dictated a lightness of equipment suitable for quick getaways and an unobtrusive modesty unlikely to arouse censure. The English word ‘bank’ and its European cognates derive from the Italian word banchi, the trestle tables that were the essential piece of kit in the early banker’s arsenal. These banchi were first set up in the loggias of the palazzi della ragione, combined law courts and town halls, of Tuscan towns in the 14th century. While Pevsner expands his investigation of the type to incorporate exchanges, here I will stick to buildings that centre on the transaction across the teller’s desk, or its automatic replacement (which also means head offices are out). There are further distinctions to be made within this category, such as retail or private banks, merchant banks and central banks, and so on.
Information regarding the architectural settings in which modern banking was born is sparse. The Medici had a network of banks spread throughout Western Europe, but only one of these buildings survives outside Italy. Hof Bladelin in Bruges, purchased under the auspices of their charismatic and ultimately disastrous agent Tommaso Portinari, was liberally decorated with Medici family emblems – essentially logos that sought to reassure local customers by association with the prestigious Medici brand. The rooms in which such filial representatives conducted the business of banking were usually located towards the rear of the palazzi in which they lived, for reasons of privacy and security; an inventory of the home of a banker in Cremona lists the contents of such a room as including ‘desks, small tables, stools, a cupboard with drawers for archiving material, boards for supporting papers, three workbenches for writing, and a table for counting money’, according to Lauren Jacobi in The Architecture of Banking in Renaissance Italy.
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Banks for public use, by contrast, often opened onto the street, in the manner of any other early modern shop – as, for instance, in the case of the Palazzo Cavalcanti, built around 1390 in Florence, which housed a number of shops and banks behind the arches on its ground floor. While international and local banks may generally have been distinguished by their layouts, there were no external architectural features that defined banks in this period – one might add that this has continued into the present, with one important exception to which I will come later.
A glimpse of how the banker’s set-up might have worked in practice in the 16th century was provided by Matthäus Schwarz, head accountant of Jakob Fugger ‘the rich’ – the German backer of Emperor Charles V and most successful banker of his day (and probably one of the richest men in history). Schwarz had himself depicted in his place of work and, in this drawing, we see the essential desk as well as a filing system enumerating the locations of some of the Fugger bank’s branches. This image sets out a spatial network of capitals and capital, all tied together by the information system tended by the proud clerk.
When the world’s second national bank was established in London in 1694, with the aim of funding a war against France, the local sector was still characterised by private banks run on a similar principle to the Florentine banks of the three preceding centuries. These were, in other words, usually housed in mixed-use buildings in which the partner and clerks lived above the ‘shop’ – this was indeed how the banking hall was known, while the offices were called the ‘parlour’, clearly demonstrating the predominantly domestic character of these buildings. Vaults meanwhile, were located at the back or in the basement, for security reasons.
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Source: RIBA collections
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The Bank of England only differed in scale; its first purpose-built home was a Palladian mansion erected in 1734. A century of expansion followed as demand for its services – and, with it, the institution’s organisational complexity – increased until, in 1833, John Soane completed his 45-year programme of transformation. The spooky classicism of the interior spaces achieved a more profound mystification of the business than that attempted by his more plodding peers, who made do with the customary solidity of columns. These Soane eroded, opting instead for a kind of mysticism of light effects. All that is solid melts into air – but on a reassuring foundation of solid gold.
Classicism of various sorts long remained the convention for banks on both sides of the Atlantic (and elsewhere), since, as Pevsner puts it, Gothic – touted as it was by moralists such as Ruskin and Morris – was hardly an appropriate look for usurers. The Italianate palazzo style was long favoured for obvious reasons and, later on, more free or indeed florid examples of Baroque-esque and Mannerism-ism followed. Among the latter can be included Lutyens’ Midland Bank buildings in London and Manchester. The tentative verticality of the latter took full flight in the US, where buildings such as the Williamsburgh Savings Bank pushed the palazzo to its vertical limits, extruding cavernous banking halls along the way.
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Source: Robert Harding / Alamy
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Earlier in the US, Greek had been the preferred language of bankers (and as Greek temples had originally incorporated treasuries, why not). The early banks of Philadelphia – suitably sober but relatively modest – ended in Washington gigantism in the 1930s. There were also some more eccentric examples along the way, such as the two-faced Bowery Savings Bank by sex pest Stanford White, and the wacky rotunda, a kind of Wizard of Oz Palladianism, of the Old Stone Bank in Providence. Such flashy savings banks, the most lushly decorated in the history of the type, were intended to entice the less wealthy to deposit – one may speculate that suspicious, first-time savers were meant to be parted from the contents of their mattresses by riotous gilding and columns. Now that we are all utterly depending on banks, such munificence has made way for the carpet tile.
The enduring preference for markers of antiquity in banking architecture is no mystery, as the whole business – perhaps unlike any other besides religion – depends entirely on belief. And the architectural means of appealing to trust were long held to be references to ancient temples. One of the few masters of bank design to intervene in this structurally conservative field with an assured hand, conjuring solidity out of bizarre and unprecedented forms (and this despite him being on the skids) was Louis Sullivan. Sullivan’s eight Midwestern banks built between 1908 and 1920 are cuboid volumes adorned with his customary vegetal flourishes, and strangely mausoleal, like Soane’s bank before them.
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Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer
Meanwhile, the stylistic modulations of the bank continued, and indeed underwent their greatest break so far. With examples such as Wagner’s Jugendstil-in-space Postal Savings Bank in Vienna, SOM’s Manufacturers Hanover Trust Building in New York, Testa’s Banco de Londres and Giovanni Michelucci’s extraordinary steel bank in the Sienese village of Val D’Elsa, Modernism crept surely into the type. But modernity did not truly enter the bank until the invention of the ATM in 1967. This cost-cutting innovation had the benefit of permitting banking at all times of day, when banks had previously kept inconvenient hours, and also of transforming facades into banks at whim. In the form of the ATM vestibule, it has resulted in uncanny spaces of automation, the vision of a future in which the service sector has been entirely dehumanised.
The miniaturisation and proliferation of the bank initiated by ATMs has continued apace in the form of banking apps, which mean the activity has now been entirely divorced from fixed architectural form. This has given banks the opportunity to close their branches, many of which have been converted into bars or pharmacies. However, this is not the case everywhere in the world: in Nigeria, for instance, bank branches continue to play a vital role and, in the hands of architect James George, they have been given a surprisingly eccentric form. One might not think deconstruction would be an obvious choice for such buildings, but George is quick to correct this supposition: ‘Our architecture in Africa is naturally Deconstructivist. The insistence on non-Euclidean geometry that caused the Deconstructivist Eureka moment in Europe is commonplace in our traditional architecture. This is the reason why I cannot align my thought process to that of the Libeskinds and Eisenmans of this world. They learnt fractal geometry but, as Africans, we are born with the ability to see all the fractal dimensions of time.’ Few innovations have had more time-distorting effects in modernity than banking, with its interest rates and futures trading, so this seems appropriate.
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Source: Olajide Ayeni / HTL
05 typology bank giovanni micheluuci val delsa monte paschi drawing architectural review
05 typology bank giovanni micheluuci val delsa monte paschi architectural review
Source: Graham Bizley
Lead image: A roundel portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici in the Bruges branch of the family bank
This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today