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Part 1 of 2: Once grand, now bland
Banks used to be about ritual and permanence. They resembled Greek or Roman temples, with the banker playing the secular priest, dispensing loans instead of benedictions. Banks inspired awe, though their built-for- the-ages classicism was salesmanship, designed to convince depositors that their money would be safer in the vault than stuffed in a mattress.
Now banks want to look like Starbucks, not the Parthenon. Around Chicago and the nation, branch banks are popping up like mushrooms -- or, more accurately, multiplying like cockroaches. Defying predictions made in the 1990s, when online banking boomed and banks trimmed spending on bricks and mortar, face-to-face banking is back. But its architecture, on the whole, is disappointingly faceless.
In storefronts, strip malls and even parking garages, many of the branches are as visually generic as cell phone outlets, convenience stores or fast-food restaurants. Indeed, the new mini-banks -- let's call them McBanks -- are the early 21st Century's answer to the fast-food restaurants of the late 20th Century: loved for their convenience, loathed for their cookie-cutter McArchitecture.
One might reasonably ask of these small-scale operations: "Why should they offer anything more?" But a better question would be: "Why not?" Today, everything from Apple Computer stores to Chipotle Mexican Grill outlets are feeding our appetite for retail and restaurant design that adds distinctive flavor to the public spaces of cities and suburbs.
Instead of raising aesthetic standards, however, the new banks are raising blood pressure, not simply because they look so bland, but because they have pushed out corner drugstores and other retailers that make neighborhoods livable. They also are drawing fire because they don't generate sales tax revenue, as stores do.
As a result, Chicago and a growing number of suburbs -- among them Buffalo Grove, Highland Park, Hinsdale and Lake Forest -- have passed measures to curb the rising number of branch banks. Lake Forest has gone a step further, tightly regulating how banks should look and even pushing them to offer plans that would allow them to be changed into stores if a bank closes.
Bankers and their design consultants take a different view. They are giving customers what they want, they say--a convenient combination of online, ATM, telephone and in-person banking. Invariably, they use the word "intimidating" to describe the old banks, saying that they were as cold and impersonal as Department of Motor Vehicle branches.
In pointed contrast, the new banks fall all over themselves to glad-hand you. Teller lines and roped-off areas are out. The new banks offer such welcoming touches as conciergelike greeter desks, coffee bars, kids' play spaces, comfy couches, even tellers and managers who dress in the unpriestly garb of "business casual" -- khakis, colored shirts and no ties. Banks from Sarasota, Fla., to San Jose, Calif., now share branches with Starbucks, hoping to attract customers from the popular coffee shop.
"A scone with your loan?" the trade journal, American Banker, quipped in a recent story.
While these amenities undoubtedly appeal to customers, they don't address the one thing that the branch bank boom hasn't altered: Banks, like all buildings, still have the capacity to add to -- or detract from -- the character of cities and suburbs. And that raises some vexing questions: Is it possible for a bank to be approachable and functional without being dumbed down architecturally? Can the new banks add to the character of cities and suburbs -- or will they continue to drown it in architectural red ink?
Banking has long gone hand in hand with real places, not the intangible, faceless universe of the World Wide Web.
The word "bank" derives from the Italian "banco," which means "bench." In the 13th Century, when modern banking developed in Italy, Italian bankers did business on benches in the street.
As computer use boomed in the 1990s, it appeared that banks were ready to sever their historic ties with human interaction. They invested heavily in online operations and sliced spending on new buildings. Actual banks appeared ready to disappear into the ether of the Internet.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a placeless banking universe: Plenty of customers still wanted to look into the eyes of a banker. And banks discovered that branches provided them the perfect platform to sell customers not just checking accounts, but insurance and other financial services that used to be off-limits because of federal regulations dating back to the Depression.
As a result, the number of branch banks around the country has steadily increased to more than 80,000, according to the American Bankers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. While 36 million U.S. households banked online in 2004, a nearly fivefold increase from 1998, more than 9 of every 10 households still visits a branch bank once a month, according to Tracey Mills, a spokeswoman for the trade group.
Chicago is the epicenter of the branch-banking boom, largely because old Illinois laws that restricted the spread of branch banking have been relaxed. Bank One, for example, added 60 branches last year, giving it 310 branches in the six-county Chicago area and northwest Indiana. Upstart Washington Mutual, based in Seattle, claims 150 in the region.
Yet as a close look at the Washington Mutual branches shows, the new face-to-face banking is entirely different from the old bank temples.
The only thing remotely Greek or Roman about a Washington Mutual branch is the bank's code name for the design --"Occasio," which is Latin for "favorable opportunity."
"Our customers, as we interviewed them, didn't talk to us about building something that resembled a mausoleum," explained Karen Curtin, Washington Mutual's senior vice president for innovation and customer insight. "Banks can be intimidating. They wanted a place where they would come in and feel comfortable."
Who can argue with that? The first Occasio, which was conceived for Washington Mutual by Dayton-based Design Forum, was introduced in Las Vegas five years ago. Since then, the Occasio branches have spread like kudzu, including a downtown branch at 431 N. Orleans St., just north of the Merchandise Mart.
The bank is shoehorned into a street-level storefront of an exposed-concrete parking garage. An Irv's menswear store used to occupy the space, bank employees said.
The exterior -- it's a stretch to call it a facade -- has windows that let passersby see inside instead of the massive columns that offered the old banks real and symbolic protection. The lone feature that distinguishes the little bank's exterior is a bright blue awning. If you squint, it could be the awning for a White Hen.
The inside is more intriguing. There's a hint of old monumentality in a halo-shaped ceiling fixture that hovers like a spaceship. But the rest of the space is decidedly untraditional, breaking down the barriers that made old banks so stuffy.
Kiosklike "teller towers" let customers stand alongside tellers. Equally unusual are a children's play space and a warm color scheme (purples, greens and yellows), the latter of which has more in common with a Starbucks than the chaste white marble banks of yore. There are no granite counters, barely any masonry, in fact, unless you count the tile floor. Here, the dressed-down banker, clad in khakis and a colored shirt, strives to be your friend, not your priest.
Give the Occasio branches their due: They organize banking in a way that responds to the relaxed American lifestyle and they do so in a way that is visually fresh -- crisp and clean-lined rather than tarted up with paste-on stone columns. They are performing well economically, Curtin said, though she declines to provide specifics.
Still, there's a disturbing sameness to them. It doesn't so much defile city and suburban downtowns with tastelessness as drag them down with cookie-cutter banality.
Multiply that banality over and over, as McBanks cluster in city neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park or suburbs such as Lake Forest and you wind up with a bigger problem: too many banks, too little character.
At the Armitage Avenue-Halsted Street intersection in Lincoln Park, for example, a Citibank, a North Community Bank and a mansionlike Bridgeview Bank hold down three of the four corners. To the west along Armitage, a Fifth Third Bank, a Bank One and a National City Bank have squeezed into storefronts.
Merchants are right to view the influx warily, and not just because most of these banks look like yokels at a party of chic urbanites. The influx threatens to sap Armitage of its retail identity, displacing one-of-a-kind boutiques with could-be-anywhere banks. In addition, as the merchants argue, the banks can put a damper on retailing because they close before the other stores and aren't open (excluding ATM service) at night or on Sundays.
"Once you start losing retailers, you lose the attractiveness for shoppers to come to that area. Why would someone make a trip into the city to shop if all there is is banks?" said Charles Eastwood, chief of staff for Ald. Vi Daley (43rd), in whose ward the district is located.
In response, Daley introduced an amendment to the city's new zoning code that the City Council passed Feb. 9. In its final form, it requires a bank to get a special-use permit if it wants to build a new branch within 600 feet of an existing bank in an area designated a "pedestrian retail street." The law covers several North Side retail strips, such as Armitage.
"Merchants there say they would rather have their worst competitors open up a shop across than the street than have another bank come in," Eastwood said.
The Chicago law marks one way to curb the numbing effects of McBanks, but it is a blunt instrument compared with the more sophisticated set of tools being used in the North Shore suburb of Lake Forest.
Those tools were put in place after Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank announced in 2003 that it would construct a new branch in the suburb's western business district.
The plan upset residents because the district already had three banks and the new one would displace a dry cleaners, an interior design shop and other retailers. Officials were concerned that Lake Forest would be left with a glut of buildings suitable for nothing but banks -- and that these buildings would sit empty if not all the banks survived.
"It certainly raised our awareness of what banks could do in the community," said Catherine Czerniak, the suburb's director of community development.
After imposing a 90-day moratorium on new bank construction, Lake Forest passed a law requiring a special-use permit for new banks. But unlike Chicago's new measure, the law gives the suburb leverage to control such things as whether a new bank's materials and design are compatible with its neighbors. It also allows Lake Forest to pressure banks so their buildings can be changed to other uses, particularly stores.
The first bank to be built under these requirements is a new Bank of America at 780 N. Western Ave. Designed by Timothy Morgan Associates of Lincolnshire, it sits a couple of blocks north of Howard Van Doren Shaw's brilliant, Arts and Crafts-style Market Square shopping center. It looks nothing like a grand old banking temple or a new strip mall bank.
Instead, the two-story structure is a curious mix of permanence and impermanence. A simplified version of an old-fashioned Main Street commercial building, it sports brick arches along its top story. But the street-level window bays beneath them are the most revealing detail. In case the bank goes out of business, a store could easily put those show windows to good use. It's not hard to imagine mannequins in them.
"You could see this being a Gap or an Abercrombie & Fitch," said Tom Broadfoot, an assistant manager at the bank. Even the vault could be re-used, he joked, if the bank became a jewelry store.
The new Bank of America is a decent, civilized building, modestly matching the scale and character of the storefronts along its street while ceding pride of place to the picturesque towers of Market Square. This is good contextual architecture, free of postmodern pastiche or mock traditionalism. The building is by no means as architecturally imposing as the mansionlike Northern Trust bank a few blocks away, but it is certainly a better fit for the suburb's downtown than yet another McBank.
All this suggests a different direction for bank design, one that recognizes that the old days of grand bank temples are gone, but that a bank's responsibility to shape the public realm remains as significant as ever.
If banks are going to be built according to some pre-existing formula, cities and suburbs have every right to require them to tweak -- or even break -- that formula. And if it costs a little bit more, well, who better than banks to come up a few extra dollars?
Yet the desire for banks with some architectural oomph should not lead public officials down the road to the sentimentality of Disneyland's Main Street. Indeed, some of the best retail and restaurant designs today are assertively modern.
Take the new Apple store at 679 N. Michigan Ave., a sleek cathedral of computing. Or, to cite something less expensive, how about the restaurants of the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain, where the visual energy of the interior typically extends outward to the storefront?
At the chain's outlet at 316 N. Michigan Ave., a curving piece of russet-colored metal projects from the facade, announcing the restaurant's presence like an old-fashioned porch. It's far more engaging than a Washington Mutual branch just down the street.
It speaks volumes about the current predicament that a glorified burrito joint could set an example for a bank. But to ignore that telling contrast would be to lose a chance to upgrade the architectural currency of the nation's banks -- and, with it, the flavor and character of the public realm.
Bank architecture: A brief history
Banks have long served as patrons for distinguished architecture, though they have spawned controversy, too, as in the current building boom of small branch banks in Chicago and around the nation. Here is a brief history of bank architecture and changes in bank building technology during the last century:
- 1908: Chicago architect Louis Sullivan completes one of his great small-town Midwestern banks, the National Farmers' Bank in Owatonna, Minn., about 60 miles south of Minneapolis. With its intricate ornament, the bank celebrates rural Midwestern life.
- 1924: Cementing the look of LaSalle Street as "Wall Street Midwest," the classical Illinois Merchants Bank Building, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White of Chicago, opens at 231 S. LaSalle St. (It later becomes the Continental Illinois Bank Building.)
- 1932: The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society builds the first International Style skyscraper in America, a new headquarters in Philadelphia designed by architects George Howe and William Lescaze.
- 1934: Constructed during the height of the Depression by the estate of Marshall Field, the LaSalle Bank Building becomes the Loop's largest office building with one million square feet. The Art Deco skyscraper, by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, consists of four 23-story wings topped by a tower that brings its height to 45 stories.
- 1946: The Exchange National Bank of Chicago opens the era of automotive banking with the nation's first drive-in bank at 130 S. LaSalle St. The drive-in has 10 teller windows with bulletproof glass and automatic slide-out drawers.
- 1954: Bank architecture moves a step further from the classical, fortress of finance model with the opening of a modernist, glass-walled bank for Manufacturers Trust Co. in Manhattan. It is designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of New York.
- 1967: A Barclays Bank branch near London unveils the first rudimentary automatic teller machine. Two years later, Chemical Bank opens America's first ATM in Rockville Centre, N.Y.
- 1969: The First National Bank of Chicago constructs its muscular, tapering skyscraper at Madison and Dearborn Streets. The design, by Perkins & Will of Chicago, accommodates narrow office floors at the top and a wide banking hall at the base.
- 1980: The World Savings and Loan Association completes a North Hollywood, Calif., branch designed by an upstart Southern California architect, Frank Gehry. The freestanding structure consists of a skylit, one-story banking hall, framed by tall, bookend-like facades.
- 1993: Nearly nine years after the federal government and a consortium of other big banks bail out once-troubled Continental Bank, the bank's grand banking hall in the former Illinois Merchants Bank Building at 231 S. LaSalle St. reopens after a $10 million renovation. Bank of America now occupies the building.
- 2000: Reflecting the ever-growing trend toward banks modeled on retail stores, Seattle-based Washington Mutual opens its first "Occasio" branch bank in Las Vegas. Conceived by Dayton-based Design Forum, the Occasio branches feature bright graphics, children's play areas and a ring of kiosk-like "teller towers" instead of a conventional teller line.
-- Blair Kamin