As an aesthetic snob and wayward theorist himself John Betjeman claimed that he hated aesthetic snobs and their wayward theories. In 1937 a young Betjeman hoped for ‘friendly bombs [to] fall on Slough!’ adding ‘It isn’t fit for humans now’. The following year he wrote the cantankerous, candid and whimsical ‘Ghastly Good Taste’ or, to give it its full title ‘a depressing story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture’. When it was reprinted thirty-seven years later, he apologised. He apologised for writing the book in a ‘white-hot fury’. He apologised for his naïve arrogance. He apologised for his sweeping generalisations. He did not apologise however for his elitism and offbeat ideas.
With all its snooty connotations and ornery theories there is no doubt Betjeman would have hated ‘Dear Bloody England’. However, where we might have shared some common ground is on the topic of banks and banking architecture. Banks are public palaces. Traditionally they have been inviting and engaging buildings with open and decorative auditorium and clear spatial progress. Historically banks were designed as statements of commercial enterprise; they were built by architects for bankers and the act of banking – in that respect they were fit for purpose.
The architecture of choice for many banks was Classicism, a style that portrayed the rigidity of the banking system with soaring Corinthian columns that imparted a firm trust with entablature and pediments that asserted a comfortable assurance of longevity. The architect George Sampson drew on this style for the earliest incarnation of the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street in the 1730s. Sir Robert Taylor extended this building before John Soane, architect to the Bank of England for 45 years from 1788, looked to French theorists and imperial Rome for his stimuluses of light and space (above). His building was a revelation, the domed roof a feature of the London skyline until Herbert Baker demolished it in the 1920s.
24 banks in London in 1725 rose to nearly 70 by the end of the century. With the Victorians came a slow departure from the Classical ideal facilitated by the likes of Cockerell, Hardwick and Tite. However the classic style was not lost altogether as monoliths to commerce intimidated high streets up-and-down the country −Charles Cockerell’s splendid Palladian example (1846) in King Street, Manchester, John Gibson’s vain-glorious Portland stone bank situated at the dock end of the High Street in Southampton (1875) (left) and towering white imperial Martin’s Bank, Edge Hill (John Francis Doyle, 1905) in Liverpool are all sound examples. Gothic, on the whole did not fit the ethos of trustworthy banking − far too austere, however the Queen Anne style was softer and more befitting. Today many modest banks of the twentieth-century reflect the resurgence the Renaissance or ‘Wrenaissance’, honest red brick affairs with Portland stone Corinthian orders and ornate door pediments. Thankfully many are retained on our high streets although not all for their intended purpose.
Today banking architecture is in tatters alongside the reputations of the bankers it represents. New modernist and post-modernist buildings embrace open plans, boutique-style and automation, with heart-space instead of banking floors and glass bullet-proof booths replacing ornate panelled church-like partitions. Where once there was engagement and service is now turbulence and conflict.
But perhaps all is not lost? The red brick, gabled, Queen Anne style, Cock’s and Biddulph Bank in Whitehall (Richard Coad, 1880) (right) is now a pub called ‘The Lord of the Half Moon’. Its wonderful banking hall with coffered ceiling above, influenced perhaps by the nearby banqueting House (Inigo Jones), now hosts the noise of drinkers and the clinking of glasses. Much has been retained, the stern and sober panelling, the mouldings and architectural fittings. To the rear is John Oldrich Scott’s extension, now an eatery. Its function changed but integrity not lost. As for banks, well last week I spent one hour in a God-forsaken sterile glass lined box hemmed in a makeshift cubicle with white light. The telephone was constantly emitting a loud electronic repetitive noise. The cash dispenser machine had its own unique tone as did the printer, the security door and the panic alarms. For one hour I sat as if in a Depeche Mode concert.
Betjeman would have visited his bank manager in a sober, serious building perhaps in an Adam inspired office befitting a Chaplinesque suited and booted black and white bank manager, perhaps even Mr Mainwaring himself. If Betjeman walked into a bank today my guess is that he would declare them ‘… not fit for humans now’? Today there is no manager. No banking floor. No architecture. No connection. No engagement. Just machines that annoyingly bleep from the moment you walk in to the time you leave, bleepin’, ringing, pulsing, annoying, electronic bleeps −buzzers and bells, buzzers and bells.
Apologies for writing this in a ‘white-hot fury’, for my naïve arrogance and for my sweeping generalisations however if there is any conclusion to be drawn from this, then ‘love pubs, hate banks’ might fit the bill.