ARCHITECTURE

Monuments to money

Banks’ designs are telling social statements

PAMELA YOUNG November 26 1990
ARCHITECTURE

Monuments to money

Banks’ designs are telling social statements

PAMELA YOUNG November 26 1990

Monuments to money

ARCHITECTURE

Banks’ designs are telling social statements

For centuries, banking organizations have tended to house themselves in buildings that convey a sense of wealth, security and permanence. But there have been notable exceptions. In the early 1900s, the Canadian Bank of Commerce (now the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce) developed elegant yet easy-to-assemble wooden buildings that could be packed into two boxcars, shipped west and swiftly erected in new Prairie communities. If a town failed—and many did—the bank simply dismantled its building and moved it to another site. One of those trim neoclassical stuctures, a bank still in operation in Innisfree, Alta., is included in a major photographic exhibition of North American bank buildings that opened last week at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture. The first comprehensive show devoted to bank buildings, Money Matters: A Critical Look at Bank Architecture illustrates the ways in which the familiar landmarks have reflected changing social values.

Organized by Montreal architectural historian Susan Wagg and Houston photography curator Ann Tucker, the show contradicts the conventional wisdom that banking institutions are stolidly conservative in their design taste. In fact, the show—which moves to Chicago after closing in Montreal on Feb. 24, and travels to the Vancouver Museum in September and to Ottawa and Toronto in 1992— demonstrates that banks have experimented with a rich array of building styles, and have even at times been architectural trendsetters. Encompassing nearly 200 years of North American bank-building, the exhibition features 56 edifices, recorded in color and blackand-white by 11 specially commissioned photographers. The buildings—36 of them American and 20 Canadian—range from the prim, house-like banks of the Georgian era to the brash, glittering sky-stabbers of recent decades. But all in some way convey a sense of authority and stability. Said Wagg: “Banking has a lot to do with psychology—it is a business founded on trust.”

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as Wagg points out in her catalogue essay, North America’s banks had difficulty generating trust. Most of the population was agrarian, conservative and debt-fearing, and such figures as American presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were vocal opponents of banks. At the time, only a wealthy elite used banks at all.

But bank buildings were already serving as style-setters for civic architecture. One of the

most influential early buildings featured in Money Matters is the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. Designed by U.S. neoclassical architect William Strickland and erected between 1819 and 1824, the severe stone edifice, mounted on a pedestal of steps and fronted with freestanding columns, was the first U.S. public building ever modelled on a Greek temple. The style, which came to be known as Greek Revival, dominated American civic architecture in the first half of the 19th century. Early Canadian banks, however, were far more likely to resemble contemporary British mansions or private clubs than classical temples. Said Wagg: “Greek Revival was a

very nationalist style. To Americans, it meant that America was the New Republic. Canadians would never have gone for that because they were loyal to Britain.”

One of the great strengths of Money Matters is that it illustrates the ways in which social change and shifts in banking policy have influenced fashions in bank architecture. In the latter half of the 19th century, banks provided the credit that fuelled a boom of expansion and industrialization. No longer struggling for acceptance, banks flourished—and, particularly in the United States, they raided the historical closet of architectural styles to fashion distinctive images for themselves. Between the 1850s and the 1890s, U.S. banks decked themselves out in designs that recalled a range of styles, from medieval fortresses to the

Dutch townhouses of Rembrandt’s time.

While small, regional banks proliferated in the United States, in Canada a handful of institutions—including the Bank of Montreal and the Bank of Commerce—rapidly amassed power and opened branches across the country. The Canadian banks remained more sobrelooking than their U.S. counterparts, but handsome buildings like the Bank of Montreal West End Branch on St. Catherine Street (now Guardian Trust), built in Montreal in 1889, reflect a taste for sumptuous solidity.

Towards the end of the 19th century, classicism came once more into vogue in the United States—and the cool grey tide of stone pillars

and rigid symmetry swept across Canada as well. Meanwhile, an architectural revolution was under way: with the invention of the elevator and the introduction of structural steel and reinforced concrete, skyscrapers became possible. Money Matters presents one fascinating transitional building of the early skyscraper era, Chicago’s Illinois Merchants Trust Co. (now Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Co. of Chicago), built between 1921 and 1924. It looks as though a columned portico from a small Greek-temple-style bank has been centred at a massive skyscraper’s base.

The most radical change in bank architecture occurred after the Second World War. The building of massive North American banks slowed dramatically during the Depression and the war, but, in the fields of banking policy and

architectural theory, it was a period of ferment. After the 1929 stock market crash, a vast number of U.S. banks failed, leading the government to impose more stringent regulations on banks and to introduce federal deposit insurance—which meant that depositors would no longer lose their money if the bank failed. Said Wagg: “Banks were looking for new areas to get into, and one of the areas that they got very excited about was consumer banking—the man and woman off the street.” Partly because of the introduction of deposit insurance, Wagg added, banks no longer needed “that solid, fortressy look” to convince people that their money was safe.

Meanwhile, Europe’s spare International Style was making its way to North America. Bank architecture took an entirely new direction with the Manufacturers Trust Co. (now Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co.), which opened on New York City’s Fifth Avenue in 1954. Designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft of the prominent American firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it replaced the opaque, fortress-like walls of earlier banks with transparent plate glass.

The pared-down, glass-box look of the Manufacturers Trust building was the theme of bank architecture throughout the 1960s, resulting in such acknowledged modern classics as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre, erected in Toronto between 1964 and 1969. But in the next decade, ornamentation started to regain its allure. In the mid-1970s, a very different bank tower took shape alongside the basic black volumes of Mies’s Toronto-Dominion Centre: the Royal Bank Plaza, designed by Toronto’s Webb, Zerafa, Menkes, Housden Partnership, contains 2,500 ounces of shimmering gold coating in its faceted, mirror-glass skin. And the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, completed in 1973, broke away from the rationality of Modernism with a gravity-defying design: its vast central section is held aloft by two concrete piers.

The exhibition concludes with some of the towering dressed-for-excess monuments of the 1980s. The era of leveraged buy-outs found its architectural expression in Postmodernism, a style that used classical columns and other quaint decorative elements, often on a vast scale. It could lend a building panache—or astounding vulgarity.

From the restrained vigor of the Greek Revival movement to the excesses of Postmodernism, Money Matters presents a mix of extremely influential structures and ones that Wagg describes as “just buildings that I felt were truly wonderful.” The quirky delights include a 1916 Winona, Minn., bank that boasts an actual stuffed lion in place of the more common carved-stone imitation. Many of the show’s images are superb, whether they depict worn stonework on an overcast day or glass skyscrapers jutting like prisms into a cloudless sky. As Money Matters makes clear, cathedrals of capitalism are sometimes also temples of artistic achievement.

PAMELA YOUNG in Montreal