Banking in the modern sense of the word can be traced to medieval and early Renaissance Italy, to the rich cities in the north like Florence, Venice and Genoa. Given these origins and the fact that banks are an institution in charge of the world's most important asset, it is no wonder—from an architectural point of view—that even nowadays newly designed bank buildings could still opt for the neo-neo-classical look. Why? Because stylistically it is still considered evocative of reliability, state-authority level of importance and a deeply rooted tradition of good practice.
In today's business environment, however, a company's office design is critical for gaining a competitive edge. And, apart from credibility, popularity and interaction with society have become just as definitive of a company's—even a bank's—level of success.
To architects, banks almost sound like the perfect clients of means and social status. But up until a certain point in time, while the pre-conceived notions of what architecture projected an image of success still dominated, there was hardly any dynamic in the relationship. Banks failed to recognize the power of architecture as a social tool that could bring them closer to their clients—instead of didactically positioning them up above.
Image: alexhudson on travelpod.com
But just like—under the conditions of present-day economic stagnation—architects have learned to work with money, and to recognize the importance of motivating our designs economically as well as conceptually and socially, so did banks some time in the '80s embrace architecture. Some of the early examples of this new impetus are rather whimsical but very clear in the intent to manifest a change and a new desire for mass appeal.The Bank of Asia building (pictured above), for example, is very famous in Bangkok. It was designed way back in 1985 by Thai architect Sumet Jumsai, and its robotic appearance is just a symbol of the modernization of banking.
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At one point, when all the excitement in high-profile architecture of the day lay with the high-rise race, we can see some of the first examples of banks liberating themselves from the grounded conventional office buildings and rocketing up into architectural stardom - to an extent when their names are remembered thanks to their buildings - it is the Bilbao effect long before Bilbao Museum by Frank Gehry and spread all over the world too. Whether that was pre-planned publicity or not, the world still smiles at the urban legends of the first skyscraper by a European architect - Norman Foster - built in Asia with the involvement of a Feng Shui geomancer and, just as curiously, the first skyscraper in Asia built by an Asian architect that did not in fact comply with Feng Shui beliefs and is therefore up to this day frowned upon. Negative or positive, these stories have become as much a part of architectural pop-talk as the Beaux Arts Ball of 1931, in which famous architects came dressed up as their own buildings. And it is a fact worth noting, that iconic architecture was not the only new concept banks had embraced - ever since quite a long ago back in the days the ground floor of the proverbially famous Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank by Foster + Partners has been serving as a sort of a covered social plaza where people can gather, have lunch and a conversation; banks' support for the arts and for social causes also established itself as a standard around that time.
Nowadays, when the focus of architecture has ostensibly shifted from show-off grandiose symbolism to show-social awareness and environmental responsibility; and also when corporate culture has started arriving at a certain enlightened state of its own, it is great to observe the new human scale condition many banks have been sensitive enough to enter. The new age bank buildings are marked by many environmentally sustainable initiatives, social benefits for local communities like provision of public spaces, public art exhibitions, informal inviting designs with artistic and architectural value of their own and very far from dry old-time corporate aesthetics. And, yes, clients enjoy all of that and feedback is positive.
So whether all of these changes in banks' appearance and social conduct have been brought about by a popularity and trust - gaining strategy or by a relatively sincere urge to be politically correct, should we mind, when the results are rather satisfactory?