Bunshaft Begone: From Monumental Architecture to Retail Design
Photo: T. Prudon, courtesy of Docomomo US
In yet another blow to our modernist legacy, it seems as if the old Manufacturers Hanover Bank building on Fifth Avenue in New York (Gordon Bunshaft, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1953) will be turning into a retail establishment. The structure, which is landmarked, will be preserved, but the interior will disappear. The Architect's Newspaper reports that the Harry Bertoia sculpture that still hung when I last walked by a few months ago is already gone, awaiting a future home.
Sic transit gloria mundi, or tant pis, or perhaps just let buildings only last as long as our society’s commitment to them. That was my first reaction on reading about the pending transformation of this almost-nothing of a glass box sheltering a giant, and highly visible safe and rows of desks, a teller desk, and not much else. Banking is not what it used to be (I have never physically set foot into the place that now stores my money, or at least its screen apparitions, as it is all ether anyhow), and neither is the modernist ideal of transparency.
I would note, however, that the transformation of a bank into a clothing store denotes something beyond a passing of a type or a style. Banking and architecture as we once knew them had a strong relation. You could say that some of the grandest monuments of Western civilization were storerooms for treasure, whether in the forms of churches filled with reliquaries and sumptuous artifacts, or palaces, or in the literal banks that anchored so many Main Streets as well as Wall Street. Banks, which had to represent wealth, security, and the preservation of capital, were well-served by a form of cultural production predicated on the creation of object that was meant to be impressive, monumental, expensive, and lasting. Architecture always has been, is, and perhaps always will b,e the built representation of the social, economic, and political status quo.
These days, that status quo is, to put it mildly, rather fluid, and its root is, as I indicated above, to be found not in gold or diamonds or tapestries, but in zeros and ones. Architecture, on the other hand, is on the whole still a business of making monuments for rich people, corporations, institutions, or governments. Housing for the poor is a marginal pursuit, working with cheap materials or for the moment is avant garde. When banks do appear, they are minimalist outlets meant to speed your access to your ATM, or to look as friendly as a McDonald’s when you go see your loan officer. I can’t think of the last great bank any architect designed (but I would be glad to stand corrected).
Retail stores continue to be a site of innovation in design. Designers can be wildly expressive in form or material when the subject is a flagship store, or can be wizards at creating maximum effects for very little money in a manner that can be rolled out in shopping malls around the world. What you would think of as the most experimental form-making in the world of Architecture with a capital “A” is almost necessary in the design of retail establishments.
All this is just another sign of the trouble architecture in the traditional sense has gotten itself into trouble by continuing to appeal to such strange notions that you should build for the ages or should use universal and edifying orders. The replacement of this bank by another retail establishment is also a sign of the transformation of our urban cores into de facto outdoor shopping malls and the disappearance of power centers into anonymous office buildings that could be anywhere. (Will the Bertoia grace corporate offices on Park Avenue, back offices in Florida, or a call center in India?) It might not what architects want, but it is reality. Deal with it.