Bank Design Reflects Financial Ethos

Design mirrors reality, and image helps to create reality. We find ourselves in the throes of a banking crisis; the way banks look has mirrored the change that led up to this:

Bank design is serious business, for it signals the seriousness of the institution. When money was based on gold, grand American banks such as J.P. Morgan (founded in 1895) and First National City Bank (founded in 1812) were reminiscent of the temples of Greece or cathedrals of Rome solid, safe places to deposit hard-earned cash. The stately houses of finance were constructed of luxurious materials like marble, granite, bronze and stained glass whose inherent value spoke to the institution’s solemn commitment to take itself and your money seriously. These banks reflected an era when buying on credit was almost unheard of and debit cards hadn’t yet been dreamed up.

Now that money is plastic, banks are made of Formica, Plexiglas and Sheetrock. (By the looks of them you almost expect them to collapse.) Once built for the ages, banks are built for today.

Appearances reflect what’s inside. It matters.


2 responses to “Bank Design Reflects Financial Ethos

  1. Economically speaking, I have to disagree with many of the commenters on that post, though. I think it’s an interesting historical curiosity, but I would much prefer for a bank to invest in things of actual economic utility to give me good returns rather than to give me a central stately banking branch in which to visit. I mean, who even visits their bank branch anymore? I receive literal paychecks now, but I imagine that I could simply arrange for future employers to wire my salary to me, allowing me to never visit a bank branch again unless I want to complain or something.

    And despite the fact that I can spend money at the touch of a button (e.g., I bought my textbooks online and saved 100–200 dollars in the process), it’s not like I treat my money as “easy money”.

    It’s not the plastic, it’s the heart. Plastic is definitely more efficient than stone. And money is really just a carrier of price information – determining who deserves to be allocated what. Why should that be carved in stone? It doesn’t matter if it’s made of gold, paper or just figures being computed in a circuit somewhere (as long as the integrity of each account of each actor in society is assured, naturally). If we were all telepathic empaths and could keep empathic track of the economic contribution of every single individual in society, money would be quite unnecessary as we could just allocate goods and services directly. And I don’t think the use of goods or services would necessarily be more “irresponsible” or “easy” either. Only easy in a good way – avoiding inefficiency.


  2. Good points. I think I’d actually be a bit concerned to see banks looking like monumental places of worship, much more than any “church-growther” fears seeing a church that doesn’t look like a bland but cheap-slick megachurch building.

    The problem, of course, isn’t just design but, fundamentally, the sin of the present human condition. And true enough, as Milton Friedman wrote, we could just as well use something other than the form of money we have now, and it just encodes price information on equitable exchange. It’s only that in this case architecture may have contributed – quite efficiently, one might add – to a feel that the banks wanted to project to their clients, which signified a mentality that has turned out to be very problematic, to say the least.


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