Architecture’s Institutions: When is a Bank Not Just a Business, But Something More?

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

In April, 1972, the great American architect Louis I. Kahn delivered a lecture in Aspen, Colo., in which he explained a key principle of both his practice and his belief system. For Kahn, the roots of architecture, (and the larger story of humankind) are grounded in that greatest of all human constructs—the institution.

“‘Institution’ is … an excellent word. It tells you … here is an agreement in back of the making [of architecture]. … Agreement is not equal [everywhere], but there is a sense of unanimity without example. It is what made the school a school, or what inspired the first room. … So it is with…buildings that present themselves as belonging to the original inspirations…. Institutions are quasi-meeting groups that want to uphold some aspect of our democracy.”

Kahn’s comments came on the cusp of a sea change in American culture. For several decades now, academics and political pundits have lamented the demise of the institution in contemporary society; the erosion of its gravitas signals its loss of authority and shared meaning. Kahn died two years after the Aspen lecture, shortly following his last public lecture, which was delivered here in Knoxville in memory of Robert B. Church III, his former student and the architect of the recently razed modernist icon at Western Plaza. Consequently, neither lived to see the very foundation of their architectural belief system begin to subside.

It is worth asking, therefore, what happens when our institutions begin to fail us, when they no longer seem to act like “quasi-meeting groups” nor “uphold some aspect of our democracy.” What bearing does this have on the character of our cities and the nature of our architecture?

What happens when many major public universities draw less than 10 percent of their annual funding from the state, when public transit serves only a fraction of a republic, when the physical and financial development of a modest-sized city are increasingly left in the hands of those who are not its residents? These are broad and thorny questions—far too expansive for this venue. That said, the implications on the role of architecture in Knoxville and its environs is too important to leave unexamined, albeit briefly.

In my preceding column, “Mind the Gap,” First Tennessee Bank was taken to task for relinquishing responsibility for an architectural touchstone of our community, and the state: the former Hamilton National Bank building at Western Plaza, which they occupied since they acquired United American Bank through an FDIC restructuring on Feb. 15, 1983. Their regional manager rightly responded in a letter to the Mercury’s editor that they were leasing the building when they vacated it; ostensibly, they are not culpable in transforming what was once an attractive modern building into what now seems an attractive nuisance.

The question worth dwelling on now is what can we learn from this episode, beyond the limits of being more mindful of the gaps between those buildings that are recently out of date and not yet historic? Moreover, what can we reasonably expect from the institutions that are the warp and weft of any city’s social and physical fabric? After all, a community’s institutions are the reasons we have the great buildings we cherish, be they from distant epochs, or from the recent past, as was the Hamilton Bank. More difficult still, what can we reasonably expect from an institution rooted elsewhere, that is seemingly bivouacked wherever it alights owing to the constraints of quarterly reports and shareholder expectations?

Although its Knoxville headquarters occupies the tallest building in downtown, on axis with Cumberland Avenue, and crowned with its corporate logo, First Tennessee Bank’s corporate headquarters is several hundred miles west of here.

When it opened its doors in 1864, First Tennessee Bank was the first “national” bank in what was then the state’s center of commerce: downtown Memphis. It is the 14th oldest bank of this sort in the country. Originally known by another name, today it is one of several subsidiaries of the First Horizon National Corporation, also headquartered in Memphis with banking operations in a number of Southern states.

One may ask why any of this matters. The Oct. 15 edition of the Memphis Business Journal reported that earlier that month, “the Memphis-based [First Tennessee Bank] had put its Downtown headquarters on the market. …David Popwell, president and chief operating officer for [the bank], explained that while they may well sell the building, ‘…no one is going to buy this building without us entering into a long term lease for the floors we are occupying. [The potential sale] should not be interpreted as a lack of commitment to Downtown, because … we would [make] a long-term commitment at that point.’” At virtually the same moment Popwell was redoubling his bank’s commitment to downtown Memphis, the former Hamilton National Bank building 400 miles east was being reduced to rubble: never underestimate the importance of proximity to power, and the power of being local.

Presumably few but its owners, Biltmore Properties Group of Asheville, N.C., knew that Hamilton National was slated for demolition. BPG’s portfolio seems largely limited to quaint historical or historicalish building complexes, clad in red brick. Western Plaza and Melrose Place, in Knoxville, are among its most recent acquisitions. Perhaps because of the nature of their holdings, one could imagine that BPG literally could not appreciate the value of the Hamilton building; its brick was painted and its form was decidedly non-19th-century. Absent informed guidance, developers run the risk of being blunt instruments; the marks their instruments leave on a city, however, often endure for generations.

But what of First Tennessee, which is presumably operating on a higher plane than BPG? What can our community reasonably expect from this Memphis-based subsidiary in this situation? While some developers may be obtuse tools, banks are institutions, the latter of which we depend on for our society’s existence and sustenance. Yet, is it fair to hold a bank to the same standards as we would a college, athenaeum, place of worship, library, or museum? After all, not all institutions are the same.

By statutory definition, a bank (which is a very broad term) can be one or all of several institutions: Financial, Depository, Lending, etc. (exclusive of Investment Banks). One thing they are not, however, is a Public Institution, whose charter is to leaven the world, or some portion thereof. Many large banks, however, establish within their corporate structure a Charitable Institution (aka, a foundation), and First Tennessee has one of these, which is a Public Institution, that acts for the good of the community (in the locales where it does business) supporting works from cultural to social to environmental.

The First Tennessee Foundation notwithstanding, if institutions are not everywhere the same, then neither are businesses. If a banking institution is not equal to a museum or a library, it’s also not the same as, for example, an Ace Hardware or Whole Foods. We do not deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars for safe keeping at the local Ace. And while its nickname has long been “whole paycheck” owning to its museum-quality produce, we do not electronically deposit our paychecks to either Whole Foods or The Fresh Market (its longstanding Western Plaza competitor); it just seems that way.

Despite the massive banking deregulation of the 1980s and ’90s and the 2008 implosion of Lehman Brothers, we still trust banks with our money, with our futures. Of course, much of that trust is owed to the FDIC, and that is really the rub in all of this. In the end, a bank can only operate because the federal government is the ultimate insurance policy. According to the FDIC, every deposit up to $250,000 is “…backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. This means that the resources of the… government stand behind FDIC-insured depositors.” Hence, a bank only operates because, as Kahn observed: “there is an agreement in back of the making.” “We the people,” are literally the guarantors of every Financial, Depository, and Lending Institution in the country, rendering our banks a hybrid Public Institution of sorts.

How then did we get to this place, with these hybrid Public Institutions that are too big to fail and too complex to succeed absent our assistance? How, in a few generations, did our society move from banks that build and own long-term great monuments at the core of our cities (some of which can still be found in Knoxville), to leasing and vacating those monuments based on short-term profit margins?

In the end, one can’t simply chalk up the demise of Western Plaza’s Hamilton Bank building to out-of-state developers and out-of-town lease-holders. When First Tennessee decides to sell its downtown building in Memphis, for example, it may indeed insist on a long-term lease as its president promised. The next day, however, the new owner, perhaps an organization similar to the Biltmore Group, may decide to raze the building in favor of something in red brick, with arches and polystyrene columns. A nice new building, but one that looks old, but not too old: just oldish with new bathrooms, faster elevators, and valet parking.

Perhaps because of globalization and new forms of high-speed communication, it sometimes seems we live in an age of “ish,” in which the distinction between “similar” and “same,” is moot—wherein the image of a thing is equal to and often valued over and above the thing represented. The loss, on Oct. 14, 2015, of what was for many in Knoxville and beyond, not simply real estate but a real work of architecture, continues to unnerve us. More unnerving still, our commonly held sense of the past seems increasingly distant from a common sense—a generally held disposition about the present state of things.

Absent a sense that is common to its citizenry, it is increasingly difficult for a city’s institutions to be “quasi-meeting groups that want to uphold some aspect of our democracy.” As such, they run the risk of becoming little more than a ship of fools, with we as its cargo, and our great buildings, its ballast.

Correction: In the Nov. 19 print edition of this article, the design of the First Tennessee Bank Tower at FTB Plaza in Knoxville was inadvertently attributed to McCarty Holsaple McCarty. Completed in 1978 for United American Bank, it was designed by the Atlanta-based firm of Cooper Carey.

OPINION_1119_Architecture1L. David Fox

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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