Pro Bono Publico: Why Does a Bank Building Look Like a Suburban House?

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

It’s easy to forget that the space that fronts our city’s major buildings, or the zone between curb and building, is no less important than the buildings themselves. So many today grow up in settings absent sidewalks that this significance may fail to register while traversing a city. Yet, this public space is pro bono publico—for the public good. Which raises such nettlesome questions as which public and what good? These are less questions with a single answer than the basis for debate, the sort in which any populace ought to be endlessly engaged.

I’d like to suggest for consideration, not the intersection of Union and Market Square, or Gay and Cumberland—both good places to start this series of articles on the built environment—but rather the crossing of two important roadways known to virtually all Knoxvillers, yet little considered: the heterotopia formed by the crossing of Northshore Drive and Kingston Pike. At present, this near-Bearden crossroads is in a sorry state; three of its four corners occupied by vacant, dilapidated, or recently razed buildings. Amidst this not-quite-urbane desolation, there is a single sign of life, the new branch of the Mountain Commerce Bank (MCB) under construction (as I write) on the Northwest corner. Even here, at this most pedestrian of non-pedestrian intersections, a place we all know but never see, is there not an obligation for something to promote the public good, particularly by an institution many consider a public trust?

Following the Glass–Steagall Act of 1932 and up to the Second World War, commercial banks in the United States were highly regulated and largely local affairs, typically sited at the centers of small towns and large cities alike. Following World War II, American banking, and bank architecture changed rapidly. Populations dispersed via the newly invented Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. Banks preceded this centrifugal force with financing and followed with suburban branches, adapting their building type to this new physical setting and pattern of use. We have several fine architectural examples of post-war banking here in Knoxville: the First Tennessee Bank on the 4800 block of Kingston Pike and what is now called the First Tennessee Bank Advisors building at the nearby Western Plaza Shopping Center: both elegant works. Each is made of fine materials, their massing sensitively proportioned, their fenestration demonstrating a more open relation to the exterior permitted by the solid, bulky pre-war model. They are well-detailed and well-crafted, designed to respond to a more open setting along fast-moving roadways. In short, they are built in the language of “the strip.” And Kingston Pike is, if nothing else, the mother of all strips.

The new MCB building is the most recent example of this new paradigm, yet has virtually nothing in common with these earlier suburban banks, nor its urban antecedents; it neither invokes collective memories nor provokes a sense of the new. Yet it is not without its model. Anyone who has visited the houses of the ultra-wealthy in places like Boca Raton and Miami (or West Knoxville for that matter) will recognize that the architectural source for this bank is neither a commercial nor a civic building, but rather the mega-mansions of the uber-rich that line such places as Florida’s Intercostal Waterway or are crowded into gated enclaves on islands in the Miami harbor, or Northshore Drive. But why would a serious and sound institution such as the Mountain Commerce Bank think it a good idea for their much-anticipated new building to look like an oversized nouveau riche Floridian suburban house? Clearly their goal was to make a fine building of which they, their clients, and the community could be proud. And, as a business enterprise and relatively small banking institution, they have much to be proud of, weathering the storm of the 2008 recession that delayed their breaking ground by five years.

One possible answer to this question is that it is part of a much larger disturbing trend of using the suburban house as the model for virtually any building type. Oversized suburban houses are homes to state police barracks, interstate rest stops, major local political organizations, places of worship, restaurants, the offices of dentists and physicians. They are so ubiquitous they go without notice. How did this come to be? How did a relatively regressive building type become the ubiquitous image for such a wide array of institutions and uses? Moreover, what does this say about the culture out of which these buildings emerge and, collectively, they serve to represent? What do we learn about the values of a place, our place, when many of its most important institutions choose as their architectural model, an image that represents no place at all? After all, architecture matters.

The MCB building, like the Mechanics’ Bank and Trust Company Building at 612 South Gay St, occupies an important urban corner, albeit well outside the urban core. While the Mechanic’s Bank was designed as an important urban marker, constructed of fine materials (such as Tennessee marble and brick masonry) the MCB building is yet another fixed-term building, seemingly intended to depreciate. Curiously, across Kingston Pike sit two buildings that ought to signal portent: the remains of a defunct Regions Bank branch and the scarred surface of the former home of the Bearden Service Center (originally the MCB’s intended site).

Not long ago, a bank building and a gas station were fundamentally different in kind—one intended to endure as a multi-functional icon of economic and social stability, the other as a utilitarian and relatively short-lived response to a narrow range of commercial needs. The former’s iconography and materiality was heavy, stable, fixed; the latter’s more ephemeral, lightly tethered to its site. Once different in kind, now they are different only in degree. No public sidewalks connect them to the street. Accessible by motor vehicles alone, like the gas station it was meant to replace, there seems little bono in this new bank’s publico.

In his Outline of European Architecture (1943), Sir Nicholas Pevsner made a now-famous comparison, echoing a centuries-old argument. “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.” Things change. When a utilitarian building is built in the manner of a multivalent work of architecture such as a bank or cathedral, we call that camp (think Las Vegas). When the inverse happens, we despair.

George Dodds

George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.

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