Banks lose trust, their buildings lose elegance

Nice piece by Sundeep Khanna of Mint.

He points how earlier bank buildings were so grandiose to display both awe and this sense of security given fortress like features. This does not apply anymore:

The big banks may not be dying but the big bank buildings that defined the skylines of cities across the world are certainly a thing of the past. Over the years, banks were housed in magnificent structures, beautiful buildings, often, the biggest in town. Their size was expected to convey solidity, a sense that people’s money was safe with them since they were not going anywhere in a hurry. When it came to money, the motto was as safe as a bank.

Thus, when the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp. was planning its office tower in Hong Kong, its brief to its architects was a simple one, to build “the best bank building in the world”. The eventual building that came up in 1986 was a work of art prompting The Observer Magazine to turn poetic in its description: “In the congested centre of Hong Kong, the Bank unfurls from the sky, like a mechanised Jacob’s Ladder, and touches the ground.”

As many such buildings in various architectural styles came up, the bank in the town square replaced the clock as a symbol of continuity, binding it to the popular culture. For over a hundred years, these buildings became a landmark for the cities they were in. London’s Midland Banks building, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, Macquarie Bank Centre in Sydney or the Bank of America Tower in New York, each of them became the itinerant tourist’s most trusted marker. Get there and you can find your way around. Many of them were spanned with glass to offer that sense of transparency. In Luxembourg, for instance, the headquarters of the European Investment Bank is an impressive all-glass building.

In India, too, with a 200-year-old history of banking, the buildings have been an integral part of the landscapes of major cities. Thus, the Standard Chartered Bank building in Mumbai, built at the turn of the 20th century, is a highlight of the Fort area serving both as a city landmark as well as an exemplar of the neo-classical style of architecture. Through the many vicissitudes that the bank went through over the 120 years of existence, the building continued to serve as a metaphor for its motto, “Here for Good”. The elegant State Bank of India Chandni Chowk branch in Delhi built some 200 years ago as well as the SBI George Town branch in Chennai, built in the Indo-Saracenic style nearly 120 years ago, are both part of the cities’ folklore.

With Lehman failure in US and PNB failure in India, the banks have lost their sheen.  Then digital transactions imply bank branches no more in vogue as well. So, there is not much importance to the design of bank buildings.

Having said that, central bank of Bahamas recently approved a design for its new building which looks really grand. And then banks are using these branches in interesting way as Axis bank showed in opening its new branch at Kargil.

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