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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Architectural vandalism: the banks (part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 of this series looked at the golden age of bank buildings as seen in some surviving "temples of finance" in Toronto and Victoria, BC. Today - a look at the sad decline of bank architecture and the deadening effect it has on our communities.

What the hell happened to us after the Second World War? We used to have legions of highly skilled artisans like stonemasons, bricklayers, sculptors & tile workers who created magnificent civic buildings that made citizens proud of their communities. Along came Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and other European "International Style" architects and almost overnight two thousand years of architectural tradition was thrown on the dung heap. Sycophantic North American architects inflicted hideous buildings on their bewildered clients in the name of progress.

Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant little book about this in 1981 called From Bauhaus to Our House. He describes what happened:

Has their ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested [than America]...?

I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse. Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents.

Every new $900 000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery.


Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors - and then then hires a decorator and gives him a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn these mean cubes and grids into a horizontal fantasy of a Restoration townhouse.


I find the relation of the architect to the client in America today wonderfully eccentric, bordering on the perverse. In the past, those who commissioned and paid for palazzi, cathedrals, opera houses, libraries, universities, museums, ministries, pillared terraces and winged villas didn't hesitate to turn them into visions of their own glory. Napoleon wanted to turn Paris into Rome under the Caesars, only with louder music and more marble. And it was done. His architects gave him the Arc de Triomphe and the Madeleine .... Palmerston once threw out the results of a design competition for a new British Foreign Office building and told the leading Gothic Revival architect of the day, Gilbert Scott, to do it in the Classical style. And Scott did it, because Palmerston said do it.


But after 1945 our plutocrats, bureaucrats, board chairmen, CEOs, commissioners, and college presidents undergo an inexplicable change. They become diffident and reticent. All at once they are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one's bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture.
And why? They can't tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can't figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.
This is nowhere more evident than in the sorry state of bank buildings in Canada. In less than fifty years, bank architecture in Canada's cities went from this:

(former Toronto Bank, Yonge St)

to this :

(RBC on Douglas St, Victoria BC)

In a mad rush to be perceived as modern, the great Canadian banks tossed aside a hundred years of history and tradition. The Bank of Montreal, the Toronto-Dominion Bank, the Royal Bank of Canada, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and the Bank of Nova Scotia rebranded themselves as BMO, TD, RBC, CIBC and Scotiabank. The old "temples of finance" were deemed embarrassingly old-fashioned; historic buildings were abandoned and ugly International Style shoeboxes were erected in every city and town. Harold D. Kalman describes what happened:

After 1945 major changes occurred in the attitude of banks toward their buildings, as reputations established in the preceding decades removed the need to be identified by impressive, symbolic architecture. Efficiency became paramount as the policy of centralized, standardized design intensified. Old branches were judged obsolete and replaced with new ones designed by the banks' architectural staffs. Each bank had its preferred material - the Banks of Commerce and Montreal chose brick, and the Royal Bank black granite. Most were single-storey, plain, rectangular structures. In contrast to the era when banks dominated their surroundings, standing as the symbols of a town's sense of wealth and worth, post-War branch banks are frequently understated buildings, striving to express themselves as part of the community.
Part of the community? You've got to be kidding. Let's take a look at what some of these buildings have done to a few small communities in Eastern Ontario.

First up - the city of Belleville. Located on the beautiful Bay of Quinte, it has remnants of its Victorian downtown streetscape still intact, like this stretch of buildings along Bridge Street:

There are even a couple of banks downtown still operating in their historic buildings, like this branch of the CIBC on Front Street:

And yet, within a few blocks of each other on Belleville's main street are these monstrosities:

and this one right next to Belleville's Gothic city hall:

Cobourg, Ontario has one of the best-preserved 19th century streetscapes in Canada, including the spectacular neo-classical Victoria Hall which takes up an entire block of King Street:

So what did the city's banks decide to build directly across the street?

(Notice the pathetic attempts to disguise the concrete-block facade of the Bank of Montreal with some flimsy classical pilasters. The owners of this building know that it isn't worthy of sharing the street with Victoria Hall. The tree helps.)

Stirling, Ontario is another case in point. There was once a Bank of Montreal at the main intersection; the building survives now as an insurance office, its elaborate cornice now gone & replaced with aluminum siding:

So when the Bank of Montreal (now BMO) decided they needed more modern digs in Stirling, what did they put up on the main street right around the corner from their old historic building? This abomination, which looks like a cheap knock-off of the Festival Theatre in Stratford, or maybe a picnic shelter:

See how well it "expresses itself as part of the community"?

Not too far away in the town of Frankford stands a building that was once a branch of the now-defunct Molson's Bank, now converted into apartments. It dominates Frankford's main intersection:

It's not a very elaborate building, but it has a certain stately charm:

Frankford now has only one bank, a branch of the Bank of Montreal located directly across the street from the old Molson's Bank. Check out this imposing structure. If it wasn't for the signage, one would think this was a convenience store, or maybe a sewage treatment plant:

Here are a couple of examples from downtown Campbellford, Ontario. The sign on the BMO entrance - "celebrating 100 years in the community" - is kind of sad considering what the building has done to Campbellford's main street. Incidentally, a few years ago an out-of-control car slammed right into the main entrance of the Campbellford BMO - the only part of this fortress-like building that isn't solid concrete. They said it was brake failure, but I think the driver saw the "100 years in the community" sign and just couldn't take driving past the damned thing anymore.

Sharing the same intersection is this monument to mediocrity courtesy of the Royal Bank:

Every little town and big city in Canada has pathetic examples of the architectural vandalism that banks have inflicted on neighbourhoods. Architects counter with the argument that it's too expensive to put up buildings like they did in the old days. Tom Wolfe has this reply:

To those who complained that the International Style buildings were cramped, had flimsy walls inside as well as out, and, in general, looked cheap, the knowing response was: "These days it's too expensive to build in any other style." But it was not too expensive, merely more expensive. The critical point was what people would or would not put up with aesthetically.
So, lets not put up with it anymore. Until we stop accepting excuses for bad architecture in our communities, our neighbourhoods will continue to be cursed with these horrible buildings. Like Lord Palmerston, clients have to throw out these designs and tell architects to start over - this just isn't good enough.


Madman2001 said...

Great series, and well illustrated with wonderful photos.


Anonymous said...

I think you're completely off base. The International Style gave us a stunningly beautiful new aesthetic. Buildings like the T-D Centre in Toronto are stunning in their sleekness and attention to modern details. Mies' selection of materials was meticulous, and adopting sophisticated innovations like floor to ceiling glass, extensive glazing, an internal structural core structure created buildings that were at the same time simple but profoundly sophisticated. Look at the "waffle grid" ceiling of the banker's pavilion at the T-D Centre. The way it looks at night is absolutely stunning.

It's just a matter of attention to new details. The stone artisans may have become unemployed, but Modernist architects usually designed spaces to showcase works of art like sculptures and paintings. The employed interesting geometric patterns and motifs for a radically different but often interesting and satisfying results.

With that said, banks have declined in architectural quality at the local level. Banks used to get great architects to design even minor local branches. Now minor local branches often have such cheap designs that fit in well with suburban strip malls. It seems like new McDonald's fast food restaurants in the U.S. employ more sophisticated design than a lot of new local bank branches in Canada.

Eric said...

I won't argue that the International Style gave us a stunning new aesthetic - I just don't find it beautiful. I guess that's a matter of taste. For example, I don't like the TD Centre very much - it's stunning in the same sense that Darth Vader's Death Star is stunning - by its sheer size and menacing presence. Its black surface with unadorned window grid just sucks the life out of the Toronto skyline. It may look good at night, but that's probably because the building itself visually disappears in the dark.

I'm not opposed to massive skyscrapers per se - I just don't find the modernist glass boxes to be beautiful structures. I think, for example, that the Rockefeller Center in New York City is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It isn't just a space to showcase works of art & sculpture, it IS a work of art & sculpture. All that architectural tradition was stripped away by the architects of the International Style. Their buildings become blank canvases for viewers to create their own aesthetic, so in a sense they make a negative architectural statement. That's not a great building in my opinion.