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Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/19 posted by hidden europe on

Well do we know that modern pieties demand that one speaks only ill of banks, but here at hidden europe we often say nice things about bankers - or, to be more precise, about the good judgement exercised from time to time by bankers as they selected architects and designs for their most prestigious buildings.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Okay, we want to put in a good word for banks and bankers. Well do we know that modern pieties demand that one speaks only ill of banks, but here at hidden europe we often say nice things about bankers — or, to be more precise, about the good judgement exercised from time to time by bankers as they selected architects and designs for their most prestigious buildings.

It's not that we want to speak out in favour of the new showpiece headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB), an odd polygonal double tower now nearing completion in Frankfurt am Main. The ECB building design is assertive, an expression of the vertical city, a structure that boasts of its own importance without being especially pretty. Modern banks do tend to shout. Even if they are not high-rise like the ECB, they are often noisy. An example is the relatively low-rise new headquarters of Saxo Bank by the Tuborg Marina in Copenhagen which, with its extraordinary zebra stripes, is a fretful addition to the local streetscape.

So we want to put in a good word for the bank buildings of yesteryear which, with style and grace, with colour and ornament, communicated more subtly with their surroundings. A very fine example is The Dome in Edinburgh, a gorgeous Greco-Roman design of a kind that was much favoured by Scottish banks from the mid-19th century. The Dome was completed in 1847 as the headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Scotland. Palladian style and a lovely glass dome were (and still are) the hallmarks of this temple to capitalism. Nowadays, the bank is long gone and The Dome is a bar, restaurant and nightclub.

Bankers have long since lost control of Britain's most striking bank buildings. Oxford's first bank, a fine Georgian building on The High, is now a hotel (appropriately called Old Bank Hotel). In Liverpool, the former Martins Bank is about to be converted into the city's first five-star hotel. The building is one of Britain's most successful neoclassical designs from the interwar period and it boasts an especially striking banking hall. We can only hope that elements of that main hall will be preserved in the conversion.

In Britain bankers favoured classical accents, but financial architecture took a different turn in other parts of Europe. The main postal savings bank building in Vienna dates from the first decade of the last century. Its modernist design is superb, yielding a light and airy space that is full of grace but without any hint of pomposity. Bankers still rule the roost, as the building is nowadays the corporate headquarters of the Austrian bank BAWAG. The main banking hall is still a spot where one can linger, and nowadays there is even a small museum honouring the life and work of architect Otto Wagner.

Visitors to that Vienna bank might well be inclined to then hop on a train to Budapest to see the bank's sibling in the other great centre of Habsburg financial power. It dates from just a few years earlier than that in Vienna, and the two buildings could not be more different. Ödön Lechner's design for the Budapest postal savings bank is full of folk-art ornamentation. It is whimsical, but nonetheless beautiful, made all the better by the use of colourful Zsolnay ceramics. The Hungarian government has been developing a submission for a UNESCO listing for this and four other Lechner buildings — all of which speak to a Hungarian sense of design and identity.

Of course, there are pleasing modern bank buildings. Devotees of financial architecture who are in Copenhagen might find something more rewarding than the Saxo Bank in Arne Jacobsen's wonderful design for Denmark's National Bank (DNB). Not completed until after Jacobsen's death in 1971, the DNB building is restrained to the point of austerity. It communicates trust and authority. It is interesting too as a Gesamtkunstwerk — up until his death, Jacobsen attended to every detail of the building including the interior. Lighting, furniture... and more. Had Jacobsen lived longer, he would no doubt have insisted on designing the banknotes.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.