Banks lose trust, their buildings lose elegance
With banks losing their credibility, the buildings, too, have lost their sheen
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.
But times have changed. With the Lehman Brothers-led financial crisis of 2008, faith in the banking system took a severe hit across the world. As it is, with more and more financial transactions moving online, the role of the bank branch has been in decline. After all, once clients no longer needed to come into the bank, being present in prominent commercial areas in order to be close to them became less of a priority. Over the past 10 years, thousands of bank branches have been shut down.
What started with the Lehman crisis in the US has been completed in India by the woes of banks like ICICI Bank and Punjab National Bank. Quite apart from the serious reputational damage to the banking system and the widening trust deficit, the symbol of the bank as the last man standing is lost forever. Recently in Delhi, a simple municipal order led to the sealing of several bank lockers in prominent markets.
With banks losing their credibility, the buildings, too, have lost their sheen. When the institution itself is suspect, what use maintaining a façade? Newest banks such as Bandhan Bank and IDFC Bank are no longer announcing their entry on the scene with massive structures. As functionality overrides form and cost control becomes the new mantra, the glorious days of banks scaling new architectural standards are over.
Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider looks at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.
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