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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

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

Monday, January 25, 2010

Architectural vandalism: the banks (part I)

At one time in our history the most important institutions in a community occupied buildings that reflected their status. Court houses, libraries, schools, churches, city halls and banks were the most imposing structures in town and reflected that importance in muscular neo-classical or gothic-revival buildings that looked like secular temples. Sometime after the Second World War we lost the confidence to build beautiful civic structures and let architects in thrall to European fads inflict ugly International Style buildings on our communities with no regard to the visual damage they did to previously beautiful streetscapes. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the ugly post-war bank branches that erupted in every town & city.

Harold D. Kalman has a good summary of the history of bank architecture here. He writes about the early Canadian bank buildings:

Because banks competed for clients, they recognized the value of an architectural image that would attract customers. They adopted chiefly classical architectural forms which expressed wealth, integrity, endurance and confidence. In 1818 the Bank of Montreal constructed a stolid 3-storey building on rue St-Jacques on the model of a Georgian townhouse with a small porch consisting of a classical pediment supported by Doric columns. The BANK OF UPPER CANADA on Toronto's Adelaide St East (W.W. Baldwin, 1825-27) also resembled a respectable London townhouse with a Doric portico.

The Bank of New Brunswick (c 1826) in Saint John, NB, made a bolder statement, erecting a neoclassical building whose façade consisted simply of an Ionic temple front, closely following the innovative example of the Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia (William Strickland, 1818-24). It established the image of the bank as a temple of finance. Classical variants persisted as the century progressed. Montréal's rue St-Jacques was the financial heart of Canada where stood the neoclassical second Bank of Montreal (John Wells, 1845-48), the mansion-like Italian Renaissance revival Molsons Bank (George Browne, 1864-66) and the second-empire Merchants Bank of Canada (Hopkins and Wily, 1870).

Many of these early "temples of finance" survive, and they still turn heads. Most of them are not used as banks anymore; a lot of them seem to have found a second life as pubs. Here, for example, is a former bank built in the Second Empire style at Yonge & Wellington in Toronto, now a pub called the Irish Embassy. Notice some of the amazing details lavished on this building for no other reason than to make it pleasing to the eye:

A famous Toronto landmark at Yonge and Front St is a former Bank of Montreal branch, built in 1885 and now the home of the Hockey Hall of Fame:

Look at the workmanship that went into decorating the facade of this amazing building:

Here's another pub - the Elephant & Castle at Yonge & Gerrard, formerly the Dominion Bank. Built in 1930 in the Beaux Arts style, it has fantastic sculpted medallions that proudly proclaim the glory of commerce:

Some are still in use as bank branches. Here's the Bank of Montreal at Yonge and Queen:

Others, sadly, sit empty and derelict waiting for some imaginative retrofit and a second life. Here are two vacant banks on Yonge St. between Queen and Dundas, home now to nothing but pigeons:

The establishments in these buildings were serious businesses - customers got the sense that their money was treated with respect because the buildings were designed like churches or Roman temples. Can many of us say the same about the industrial boxes that take care of our finances today?

More "temples of finance" next time.


EMG said...

There was also a strong sense at the time that the construction of a place of business should be a contribution to the dignity (the beauty) of a city/town. It wouldn't just have been embarrassing for someone to build beneath a certain standard, it would have been extraordinarily bad for business.

Furthermore, you'll remember from Tom Wolfe that Corbu et al's assault on the face of the North American town/city did not stop there (at the face, I mean). The artisans--i.e. the working man, in whose name the deplorable "machines for living" were inflicted upon us--those who built the sort of buildings you illustrate here, were devastated (and decimated) by the rise of the modular, modernist structures. Who needs stone masons when you can paste I-beams to the exterior of buildings and call THAT decoration?

Eric said...

Not only do I feel sorry for the practitioners of the skilled trades that were made extinct by the International Style, but also for the employees who have to spend their entire working lives inside these modern soul-less buildings. It's reflected by the way bank tellers dress now - in the old days when banks looked like churches, tellers used to dress formally like they were going to church. Now, since the buildings look like convenience stores, tellers dress like bored nihilistic teenagers. That doesn't inspire much confidence in their customers. I'd just as soon use an ATM.

EMG said...

Nicely put.