The Architecture of Accessibility

By Anthony Paletta

For all the caprices of architects, common sense tends to prevail when it comes to the design of buildings that have a specific task to carry out. The retailer will balk at a building where he can’t easily display his wares; the cinema operator at a building without a marquee. Exceptions always happen but many buildings have specific things to do which means that their look will incline towards whatever arrangement makes that easiest. There’s another kind of building whose form is familiar but whose appearance has—when you actually think about it—fairly little to do with its function. A bank is one of these.

As architectural historian Daniel Abramson notes, the word “bank” derives from the Italian term for a merchant’s counter. “Thus from its very beginnings the idea of a bank connotes a physical thing or space across which human exchange takes place,” he writes. “Across the space of the banco, in its literal and later architectural forms, client and bank assay each other’s character and the authenticity of the coin and paper that passes between them.”

The fundamental fulcrum remains an interaction with a banker across a desk or a counter. (There were once days when your doubloons might all have been literally in the basement, thus encouraging fortress-like elements, but that age is long gone.) The central aim of bank design has thus been impressionistic from the start: to inspire trust in the client. For most of banking’s history, this was not especially easy. The point of multiple fairy tales is do not give your coins to a stranger in exchange for magic beans or a piece of paper. Bank architecture sought to overcome this hesitation. Critic Brendan Gill described this pursuit as “cunning stagecraft,” writing: “whether a given bank was sound or unsound, it took care to put up what was literally a good front—a façade that, whatever happened to life behind it, proclaimed an impregnable fiscal integrity.”

Louis Sullivan’s Merchants National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa, embodied the steady transition from Beaux Arts design to modernism.

This quest to project uprightness usually involved aping classical architecture, with Greek revival-styled structures very common in American bank construction. The grandeur of the main hall was there to reassure the client, with other necessary tasks ranged around the periphery. Probity was the project and remained reliably so as banking expanded to the middle classes.

Standard classicism began to be shaken up from a variety of quarters. Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank in Vienna features a sparser but still monumental character. Louis Sullivan turned to a more impressionistic vault imagery and an overload of ornament with more diverse antecedents in his eight marvelous bank commissions dotted across the Midwest like visitors from Oz. Frank Lloyd Wright built two fine banks, and various Art Deco structures toyed with the conventions.

The PSFS tower in Philadelphia, pictured in 1985, was the first modern bank skyscraper when built in the 1930s.

Classical reassurance grew less obligatory after the advent of federal deposit insurance; as concerns about overnight collapse receded, so did the need to empty a quarry of all of its marble for every new bank. William Lescaze and George Howe’s 1932 PSFS tower in Philadelphia was one early example, which aimed to raise the portcullis and lower the drawbridge in creating a more transparent retail banking space. This was all enabled, of course by advances in engineering which enabled structural steel frames and glass facades possible.

Bankers began to wonder if traditional bank forms might be a bit intimidating to lower- and middle-income clients as they began cultivating a broader demographic in the 20th century. A contributor to a 1945 Architectural Record survey of banking construction described the shift this way: “Gone is the day when a big-city bank might confine itself to depositors able to carry a thousand-dollar minimum, and when a customer who had an appointment with a vice-president went out first to buy a new hat.”

The model that banks increasingly emulated wasn’t temples but retailers. Another Architectural Record piece concluded that the bank “must get rid of the ‘stiff-collar and fishy eye’ and meet the customer at least as engagingly as a first-rate retail store.” It wasn’t just the obliging demeanor of the shopkeeper they sought to replicate but the look of contemporary shops themselves, a trend encouraged by the rise of branch banking and the increasing tendency for bank branches to be found in more modest neighborhood shopping strips instead of grand downtowns.

Gordon Bunshaft’s Manufacturer’s Trust building in Manhattan—now a retail store—featured the vaults open in street-facing windows and a banking hall on the second floor. Photo by Ryan Ng.

Two of the most important modern bank designs date from the same year, 1954, in settings that couldn’t be more different. Gordon Bunshaft’s Manufacturer’s Trust Building on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank in Columbus, Indiana, are both (literal) landmarks with somewhat different goals and considerably different methods.

The president of Manufacturer’s Trust approached Skidmore Owings Merrill and said, “I want a kind of bank that has never been built before.” That’s what he received. Gordon Bunshaft, the lead architect, created a structure of radiant transparency, kept aloft by four corner pillars and a handful of internal ones, but there’s much more to it than just glass.

Each ceiling provides an illusion of a continuous volume of light, accentuating the impression of levitation. Practical questions of use were carefully plotted, with routine payroll tellers placed on the ground floor and the main double-height banking hall on the second floor, a tradition that Bunshaft didn’t toss out but tweaked. (It’s easy to put a main hall upstairs when you can readily see it from the street.) Bunshaft didn’t eschew ornament either, with the building’s showpiece a Harry Bertoia sculptural screen and escalator patterning and other features the work of a designer who had worked for Neiman Marcus and Bullocks.

Domed skylights and a gentle blend of natural and artificial light characterize Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank in Columbus, Indiana.

In Columbus, Indiana, the town’s modern moneybags, J. Irwin Miller, wanted a friendlier-looking design for his Irwin Union Bank and hired modern luminary Eero Saarinen to design it. It was a one-story structure carefully set back from the traditional streetscape by a row of trees. The walls are all glass, but the point is everything else that’s going on. The ceiling is again vital, with domed skylights paired with lamps beneath resulting in sculptural accent and a clever conglomeration of natural and artificial light sources. Offices and filing cabinets are clustered in one corner enabling an open plan otherwise. The very visible contents otherwise are key: elegant George Nelson tables and Saarinen chairs amidst planters providing internal greenery and offering clever paths for wiring. There were no teller’s barred cages here, but wooden counters topped with specially designed fiberglass covers.

There are varying approaches already evident here which dramatize the question of what a bank “is” beyond the hall. Saarinen put his vault in the basement. Bunshaft put the vault on the ground floor. Bunshaft shuffled desks out of sight while Saarinen put them in the open. Many of these pieces could go anywhere, and they often did. Both banks were runaway successes, with vast increases in use.

The welcoming banking pavilion of TD Centre in Toronto surrounded by TD office towers. Photo by Jason Paris.

Similar processes were visible in other large buildings. Most banking functions in the contemporary era didn’t require a walk-in conversation with a customer; these could be slotted into any floor of any office tower. Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre includes several office towers that you likely wouldn’t visit and a standalone one-story banking pavilion that you would. This exercise in platonic geometry is another joy, carried again by a ceiling that reads as a grid of light. The interior is also luxe, with green marble counters, English oak paneling, granite paving and (naturally) Barcelona chairs all continuing conventions of grandeur.

A Space Age banking rotunda built for Wyoming National Bank is today a Wells Fargo branch in Casper. Photo by Evan Sparks.

The rise of the automobile and drive-through banking also soon played an oversized role in shaping the form of banks. This led to a profusion of increasingly daring shapes designed to catch the eye as one was zooming by. Jetsons-like Googie banks, geodesic domes and other sculpturally daring designs are scattered around the country. Murals both inside and out were another delightful development; Millard Sheets’ Home Savings Bank murals are treasured across California.

The trouble is that the increasing tendency to design banks for persons who might rarely get out of their cars to go in seemed to lead to an inevitable diminution in their quality. Some banks had in-house design departments that came up with meritorious designs for multiple branches as a branding feat but design at a mass scale soon produced dreary economies. Transparency has its limits; marble was generally long gone, as was anything else suggesting much effort or cost.

What comes next? An online image search for “banking” yields photos mainly of smartphones. Going into a bank increasingly involves an encounter with a screen instead of a teller; sometimes these screens are literally where a counter might have been, but design clearly is shifting.

Trips to the bank are almost certainly going to be less frequent than they were in past decades, but it’s still a stop that everyone has to make occasionally. This might counterintuitively represent an opportunity for the revival of quality design. Fewer branches could offer a chance for a revival of design; even modest effort could result in bank branch design notably better than average. After all, impressions haven’t grown any less important.

Anthony Paletta’s writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, City Journal, Architectural Record, Commentary, CityLab, the Guardian and other major outlets.