Bank Shots

by Joseph McGrath

Money Matters: A Critical Look at Bank Architecture, an exhibition of architectural photographs by 11 photographers, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Parnassus Foundation, Feb 4-April 15 1990; and the accompanying catalogue with an introduction by Brendan Gill, and essays by Robert Nisbet, Susan Wagg and Anne Wilkes Tucker (McGraw Hill, 1990).

At the heart of Money Matters: A Critical Look at Bank Architecture lies a contradiction which Anne Wilkes Tucker, the show’s curator, reveals in her essay, “Where One Stands And When One Stands There.” First, there is the idea that photography is capable of capturing an “essence” of architecture in that architectural photographs not only picture a building and its circumstances, but also communicate the cultural values that it embodies. Tucker writes, “Compared to less stationary subjects, architecture offers both advantages and disadvantages to the photographer. Time dependent factors or patination and use – such as light, weather, neglect, and ordinary habitation – cause striking changes in appearance, but the architectural presence of each building remains available for contemplation and interpretive efforts to capture its essence.”[1] Through the mediative efforts of the photographer, Tucker suggests, an essence that transcends the building’s actual circumstances may be revealed. This points directly to the second assumption and explicit point of her essay and the show as a whole. Although the architectural photographer must frequently manage technical considerations such as light, people, and obstacles in the building’s environment as well as respond to the desires of publications and clients, he remains fully capable of bringing an original and insightful interpretation to his subject. Thus, she writes, “The photographers in this project had to explore their feelings and assumptions about banks, in general, and specifically about the banks which were assigned to them.”[2] Yet she also notes that, “Architectural photographers seek to communicate a sense of each institution’s cultural significance, as well as its function and the structural relevance of its materials and methods.”[3] A succinct resolution is shaped by her suggestion that “the most talented (architectural) photographers” attempt to balance these contradictory demands in their work.

There is no doubt that the work in this show, as Tucker notes, falls far short of obsequiousness. However, the fact that each photographer’s vision is mitigated by the intentions of the show itself is overlooked. It is also worth nothing that Tucker’s insistence on the personal expressiveness of the work only blurs the distinction between interpretations that have been built around the work and the photographer’s own expression. For example, in juxtaposing the Farmer’s and Mechanic’s Bank with the Second Bank of the United States does James Iska’s photograph suggest “the commercial value of having one’s own place on the Banker’s Row’ and, “the additional value of distinctive appearance.”[4] Or has a skillful response to a photogenic subject been set to substantiate a particular history of bank architecture?
In his 1979 book, Architecture and Its Interpretation, Juan Pablo Bonta characterizes the variable nature of meaning ascribed to architectural form. Bonta suggests that a building’s meaning is contingent on the “expressive system” within which it is set by a particular interpretation. Bonta writes, “Interpreters are free to subscribe to one system or another, and even to shift allegiances from time to time. But each expressive system is selective and restrictive. Each system imposes a certain view of architectural reality, enhancing the identification of certain forms and meanings, and precluding or at least obscuring others.”[5] Moreover, alternate interpretations may mark buildings with diametrically opposite meanings.
For instance, David Duchow’s photographs of Arthur Erickson’s 1971 addition to the 1938 Bank of Canada in Ottawa are accompanied by this descriptive note: “the Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson designed a modern addition that preserved the integrity of the original building by embracing it with a massive glass structure. The light filled interior at the rear if a welcoming public space that contains a year round garden.”[6](italics mine) The same bank was also the subject of photographer Allan Sekula’s early 1987 exhibition, Geography LessionP: Canadian Notes. In accompanying text published in 1988 in the journal Assemblage, Sekula variously describes the building as a “turd in a vitrine,” “embedded… in a glass box, rather as if a brick had been frozen into a block of ice,” and “pharaonically entombed.” Sekula goes on to advance a more radical reading of the façade by suggesting, “Another reading is possible. This reading detects a more cynical subtext. A style associated with commerce, but primarily with the state, is allowed to front for – while being swallowed up by – a style associated almost exclusively with commerce. It’s as if a large corporate headquarters building had taken on the original Bank of Canada as a façade.”[7] For Sekula, the complex embodies a kind of Canadian economic myth which is “whispered” to the “Canadian bourgeoisies.” On the one hand, the building recalls a nationalistic tale of natural resources as the source of Canadian wealth (evidenced by the garden environment of the addition’s public lobby). On the other, the building promotes Canada’s membership in the invisible, but powerful, global network of international trade. The “welcoming public space” of the garden lobby is welcoming in Sekula’s view strictly within the confines set by the banks’ security system. The lobby is thoroughly duplicitous in its distraction of the user from the effectual operations of the bank.
In discussing the shaping of “expressive systems” by various interpreters, Bonta notes the discriminating selection of photographs to illustrate their own observations and delimit others.[8] Sekula’s caustic work attempts to destroy the aura of the lobby with photographs which include bags of fertilizer and capture workmen descending through hidden access hatches in the lobby floor suggesting the actual artificiality of this “natural” environment. Such occurrences are, of course, excluded from David Duchow’s work as they certainly would be in almost any commissioned work of the building.
More interesting perhaps, is the fact that both exhibitions use a virtually identical photograph of the building (a medium range shot which centers the original bank’s north façade in the middle of the print with the surrounding addition extending symmetrically towards left and right) in support of their widely departed interpretations. Admittedly, the fact that Sekula’s photograph was taken at the height of a Canadian winter and Duchow’s during the summer may be no small difference. Nevertheless, the philosopher Arthur Danto makes much of this kind of coincidence in his book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Through the use of imaginative examples, Danto suggests that even though objects (in this case, photographs) may even appear indistinguishable, this in no way marks them as the same work of art. They are in fact defined and differentiated as works of art by interpretations supplied to them by the artist or viewer. Given the central importance of interpretation in Danto’s thesis, his characterization of Art as being fundamentally rhetorical is not surprising. Danto writes, “But it is not at all difficult to find rhetorical aspects in the most exalted art, and it may just be one of the main offices of Art less to represent the world than to represent it in such a way as to cause us to view it with a certain attitude and with a special vision.”[9] Thus, under the aegis of an interpretation, advanced by whatever rhetorical skills the work’s interpreter can bring to bear, a bank, much less a photograph of a bank, can come to mean different things.
At the risk of having overstated the case, the work of writers such as Bonta and Danto as well as the tenuous discussion of photographs that are not even in the show has been submitted to help raise issues that are not without significance for this exhibit. In contract to Tucker’s suggestion that, “…each building remains available for contemplation and interpretive effort to capture its essence,” is the notion that a building contains no singular essence that is captured by an interpretation itself. For Sekula, the essence of the Bank of Canada at Ottawa is duplicity – a quality placed there by his reading of the building. From her description of the bank as bringing, “… a refreshing, sophisticated wit to Canadian Bank Architecture, without sacrificing dignity of beauty,”[10] one might suggest that Susan Wegg, the exhibition’s historian, sets urbanity at the building’s essence.

To the degree that they are works of art in their own right, buildings stand under the architect’s own creative interpretation. A photograph of such an artwork provides an additional interpretation of the “once-interpreted” object. It might be suggested that the essence of the building is, in fact, the architect’s interpretation embodied by the building and evoked by the skilled and perceptive architectural photographer in directing our attention to the explicitly “architectural” aspects of the building such as architectural details, the play of light and shadow, or the building’s relationship to others around it may not limit the work’s artfulness. Yet, contrary to Tucker, the expressiveness of such work can only be limited. For, in letting the building “speak for itself,” the photographer is obliged to suspend his or her own judgments. Len Jenshel, for instance, combines an objective, documentary eye with a refined aesthetic attitude in capturing the historic Bank of Columbus, Georgia in the even light of early morning. The building is placed judiciously as the focus of the composition with intersecting streets vanishing away from it in two-point perspective. The morning hour provides the warm, photogenic light frequently used by architectural photographers and insures wide, quiet streets that remind the viewer of the banks’ small town location. Other than depicting the bank in the most flattering and informative way possible, the photograph suggests little about Jenshel’s attitude about the bank. Such an approach is certainly not limited to Jenshel’s work. In repeated examples, such as the photographs of Robert Boudrea and James Iska, the work is limited to the limpid and picturesque presentation of the buildings and their ornamental details.

However, the show is not without some notable exceptions. Although her photographs of various banks lack the full force of her own study of classrooms exhibited at the Museum a few years ago, Catherine Wagner’s distinctive style clearly stands out. Wagner has a singular ability (combined with no small amount of wit) to photograph buildings in such a way that one is struck by them simply as objects. In a sense, it’s as if the photograph is not “of a building” at all as she tests the limits of the visual signals that tell us that a photograph is “architectural.” Wagner’s photograph of Minoru Yamasaki’s Rainer Bank Tower in Seattle captures the entirely alien quality of the building as it looms over the city. Likewise, her “View of the Roof Garden” of the Bank of California in San Francisco transforms the bank into an over-scaled, decorated pedestal on which the garden sits, cleverly underscoring the impenetrable mass of the bank.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the fact that the photographers were asked to include written remarks about their subjects with their work. Although selections have been included in Tucker’s essay, they were unfortunately excluded from the more accessible installation of the work itself. She notes, for instance, that David Miller’s comments “reflect a certain dislike for banks’ appearances and what he regards as authoritarian practices.” She writes, “It therefore wasn’t surprising that his photograph of the manager’s office in the Bank of British Columbia has the aura of a school principle’s office.”[11] Miller’s photograph is noteworthy because it uses the building in shaping an expression of the photographer’s experience of it. Depicting the building or its spaces is secondary to seeing it, as Danto suggests, “with a special vision.” It is affective because it presents a bank as its subject rather than merely the building in which it is located.

It is easy to overlook Edward Burtynsky’s witty testament to this distinction in his photographs of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. Burtynsky’s photograph of the banking hall ceiling serves as the colorful commanding image on the exhibition poster and catalog cover. It is telling perhaps to imagine replacing it with a second photograph from the same building of the broker’s loan office in which a bank functionary peers out at the viewer from his cage-like office. In seeing these photographs side by side, Burtynsky seems struck by the permeable boundary where the dignified may become the solid and the composed, the intractable.

Nevertheless, a decidedly conventional air pervades the show not only because of the predominance of photographs made through well-established approaches for shooting architecture. It’s also provided by the task to which the photographs have been set within the exhibit. The photographs serve to illustrate a historical narrative, which combines formal and stylistic descriptions with analysis of the changing features of banking institutions. As the bank’s social role changes, the bank building’s architecture changes. The architect works to project his client’s image of that role by using architecture as a kind of expressive language. Thus, in describing the use of Greek temple form, the exhibition notes state, “In order to succeed, American bankers had to convince the public that these unfamiliar and widely distrusted institutions were sound. To that end, they had their architects design impressive buildings that suggested stability.”[12]

The fact that such a conception of architecture has both specific historical origins and critical ramifications for architecture is overlooked in the exhibition and catalog. Emerging during the French Revolution in the experimental work of architects such as LeDoux and Boullee, an architecture parlante advanced the expressiveness of architecture through the formulation of a linguistic relationship between form and function. In one design for a wheelwright’s shop, LeDoux proposed a rudimentary wheel-shaped façade. Although LeDoux’s forms are highly abstracted and more radical, the understanding that architectural form represents a building’s function still underlies the rhetorical transposition of the ancient Greek temple form to house an eighteenth century American bank. In taking this understanding for granted, Wagg fails to place her narrative within a larger context which might have illuminated the way in which American architecture distinctly exemplifies fundamental changes in the nature of architecture since the enlightenment. Among others, the Italian architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri has written about “the crisis of the architectural object” born of the divestment of cultural values (perceived as permanent) from architectural form. The emergence of architecture parlante reflects this crisis by replacing the symbolic, even organic relationship between architecture and values with a linguistic relationship of signifier and signified. Simply put, prior ro the Enlightenment a palace did not express the authority of the monarchy, but literally embodied it.

For Tafuri, the eclecticism of 19th century architecture thus exemplifies a notable devaluation: “… what (had) allowed romantic eclecticism to make itself the interpreter of the merciless commercialization of the human environment (was) by immersing in it particles of completely worn-out values, presented in all their contorted muteness and falsity, as if to demonstrate that no subjective effort can regain an authenticity lost forever. Nineteenth century ambiguity consists wholly in the unrestrained exhibition of a false conscience, which attempts an ethical redemption by displaying its own lack of authenticity.”[13]

The contrast between Tafuri’s general critique and Wagg’s observations on the eclecticism of Burnham & Root’s Society for Savings Building in Cleveland is stunning. Wagg writes: “The detailing is eclectic in the manner of the day. Several periods of Gothic as well as Romanesque and Renaissance forms furnished Root with motifs, producing an agreeable – to contemporaries – visual variety. At times the ornament is pure delight… This giant red tower projected the image of a protective fortress, but it was a decidedly friendly fortress… Like Richardson and Sullivan, Root sought ways of investing America’s new large-scale commercial architecture with the dignity and meaning which had once been reserved for palaces and churches.”[14]

While Tafuri’s criticism might be dismissed as polemical, it is hardly necessary to accept his provocative arguments to appreciate his critical awareness of the thoroughly artificial nature of 19th century architecture. In accepting Root’s 19th century attempt to create an image for a bank from buildings realized centuries earlier, Wagg serves the central point of her history. From their inception up through the present day the design of banks has changed just as much (if not more) because of the need to facilitate changes in its function. To suggest that such “image making” is inauthentic would be to raise critical questions about her concluding assertion that banks rely on their buildings to “project, if not physical safety, then the other qualities that play an enduring role in their institutions’ existence and survival: stability, security and sound judgment.”[15] Rather than analyzing architecture’s role as projection and its relationship to the increasing institutional power of banks, Wagg accepts this role and characterizes the way in which various buildings have come to play it.

Opinions like Sekula’s or Tafuri’s are important with regards to “Money Matters” because they raise critical issues either excluded from or presumed by an exhibition which is especially resistant to criticism. The controlled relationship between the narrative and the photographs which make it plain, as well as the air of completeness created by the project’s comprehensive scope admit few of the insights offered by contentious interpretations. What is at stake here is perhaps best summarized by John Berger in the conclusion to his 1978 essay, “Uses of Photography:”

“There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembered is not like a terminus at the end of a line. Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it. Words, comparisons and signs need to create a context for a printed photograph in a comparable way; that is to say, they must mark and leave open diverse approaches. A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday, and historic.”[16]

In his essay, Berger argues for the creation of public contexts in which photographs might serve as artifacts of social memory. Central to his argument is the idea that photographs must be held within such contexts in the same way individuals hold memories: at the center of a nexus of countless associations. If only more critical exploration had been made of these contexts, “Money Matters” might have played this role that is more comprehensive.

1. Anne Wilkes Tucker, “Where One Stands and When One Stands There,” in Money Matters: A Critical Look at Bank Architecture (New York: McGraw-Hill Inc.), p.293.
2. Tucker, p.288.
3. Tucker, p.289
4. Tucker, p.291.
5. Juan Pablo Bonta, Architecture and Its Interpretation (London: Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd.), p.121.
6. Exhibition notes.
7. Allan Sekula, “Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes,” Assemblage 6 (June 1988), p.45.
8. Bonta, p.103.
9. Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p.167.
10. Susan Wagg, Money Matters: A Critical Look at Bank Architecture (New York: McGraw-Hill Inc.), p.173.
11. Tucker, p.289.
12. Exhibition notes.
13. Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, translated by Barbara Luigia La Penta (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press), p.43.
14. Wagg, p.87.
15. Wagg, p.199.
16. John Berger, “Uses of Photography,” in About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books), p.62-63.

Joseph McGrath is an intern architect and writer working in Houston.