22 February 2018
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Old and new bank
architecture in Lithuania

New bank buildings appear, also in Lithuania. The banks SEB, DNB, NORDEA and
UKIO still have their headquarters in older buildings in the Vilnius city centre while
two other banks, Swedbank and Danske Bank, are headquartered in new buildings
just outside the centre. The challenge for banks of today, here as in the rest of the
world, is to express their own identity and at the same time show environmental
adaptation when their new buildings are erected. The picture above illustrates
how I think a new bank building in the Vilnius outskirts can both demonstrate
respect and belonging to the city's fantastic architectural history while also
being innovative, inspiring and audience-friendly. Real materials, such as
traditional bricks, as ‘bottom line’, combined with a future-oriented,
optimistic glass building in front would, in my opinion, symbolize
the future of Lithuanian banking sector in a good way.

Text: Aage Myhre, architect and editor-in-chief

I've had the pleasure of studying bank architecture for more than 30 years. My primary task when I completed my master studies in architecture in Norway involved the analysis and criticism of bank buildings, and I touched the subject also later, when I studied architectural psychology in France. Bank architecture is very fascinating because banking is a profession that has always been keen to signal dignity and sometimes power, while money itself does not have a separate visual identity.

Greek temples with solid pillars in front was long a favourite theme, while one in recent decades have experimented with all sorts of, often divergent, symbolism variants.

Also in the Baltic States has one in recent years seen attempts to develop identity buildings for banks; from mafia-like castles with dark glass as the main theme, to more power-demonstrating buildings where Soviet ideology still seems to apply.

Fortunately, there are also brighter examples ...

Let me invite you on a tour through the history of banking architecture, globally and here in this country. Allow me also to share some thoughts with you about why bank architecture is important for the monetary economy's future, and how new bank buildings should best adapt to the long and strong architectural tradition this country represents, even in a global context.

These are my topics of the day:

1. History of bank architecture
2. Pre-war banks in Lithuania
3. Jewish banking in Lithuania
4. Banks during Soviet years
5. ‘New’ banks in old buildings
6. ‘New’ banks in new buildings
7. What should characterize a
    bank building of today?

1. History of bank architecture

Today's architecture has often many similarities with dice games in a casino. The dices are thrown out on a green felt. How and where they land and how the digits will turn up is based on chance.
Structured, intelligent thinking is not required to throw or attend. Perhaps today's bank architecture something to say about the world economy?

Description: Chess
Classic good architecture, not least represented by the Renaissance, resembles chess. Nothing is left to chance. To play you need to know the rules, learn how you can move the pieces. The fact that a single wrong move provides consequences for the rest of the game. That should perhaps bank architects and managers have understood and taken into account in their planning and use of symbols?

Architecture is the ability to see connections. Understanding interior, exterior and outdoor spaces simultaneously.

Understanding of history, present, society, politics and economics. Holistic thinking and understanding. That is what makes architecture so much more complicated than what most people imagine. The checklist in the space programme includes thousands of specifications, but it is far from enough to find answers to each of them. One must also understand to respond to the relationship between them. Responding to the indefinable that glues the points together. In addition, one must intuitively understand what kind of shape one can make out of the functional requirements and the given environment.

You will not become a good architect without having natural talent. But you also to have the ability to listen. Be humble about environment, surroundings, history and human needs. Understanding historical perspectives, psychology, sociology, economics, statics and mathematics at the same time.

It's hard to become a Palladio and Michelangelo today. They had styles to stick to. We have not today. They were raised by wise generations before them. As were craftsmen of those times. Our architects have little time and traditions. Book-knowledge and inspiration is not enough. Therefore, today's architects are often not good enough. Urban planners are in an even worse situation. They should take the lead in seeing contexts, guide architects in holistic thinking. Ensure that the indoor rooms and outdoor spaces play together. Our classical masters showed the way.

But the casino table is often more attractive than the chessboard, both in architecture and in the finance business

Money has no identity. Therefore, it has not been obvious to the world's stock exchanges and banks how to define and symbolize their own identity. Monetary institutions' architecture is a good reflection of that, often using 'stolen' symbols from classical architecture, objects, exaggerated dimensions, etc.

Through the centuries, financial institutions sought to find themselves. But have they succeeded? Not as I see it. I'm actually afraid that their architecture of today indicates that something is wrong with the very money power principles.

The leaders of the Soviet Union, all as one, tried to create communism architectural ideals. Steel and concrete. Distinctive shapes. Power forms. It was like watching the hammer and sickle in the buildings’ architecture.

I see some similar architectural thinking used by the capitalism. Monetary power institutions have tried many 'styles'. Greek columns. Roman ornaments. Gold. Shiny and / or black, opaque facades in mafia-style.

Wall Street and global finance institutions wobble. Maybe the bank architecture of the last 100 years indicated that this would happen, but we did not listen or see?

Description: Description: C:\Users\Aage\Pictures\001 Adobe\Digital Camera Photos\2007-08-13-2010-55\IMG_1329_edited.JPG
It was right here the world banking system started, in the Middle Ages. The Ponte Vecchio ("Old Bridge") is a Medieval stone closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy, noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers.

The curious fact regarding the words bank and bankruptcy is that they derive from the economic activity on Ponte Vecchio. The stand, table or bench that held the merchants goods was called a "banco" (“bench”). When a merchant was no longer able to pay his taxes, his banco was literally broken or "rotto" into pieces, therefore creating the term "bancorotto" which translates into the word "bankruptcy" in English. All initiated by the famous Medici family!
Photo: Aage Myhre.

Description: File:London.bankofengland.arp.jpg


ABOVE LEFT: Bank of England is the central bank for the UK and the model that today's central banks around the world have originated from. The headquarters in London was built over the years 1925-1939. What you see here is a building with a number of elements from ancient architecture. Powerful symbols of power and wealth. The building's lower part looks like a dark, impenetrable wall. Bank architecture came to appear like an odd mix of power symbolism and borrowed elements from ancient cultures.

ABOVE RIGHT: Scrooge McDuck on his way up to his famous money bin, the world's most unique building in terms of money power. More clearly can it not be said, what this is about. Architecture that tells it all. Scrooge is a wealthy Scottish business magnate and tycoon. He was in his first few appearances characterized as a greedy miser and antihero (as Charles Dickens' original Scrooge was), but in later comics and animated shorts and the modern day he is more often portrayed as a charitable and thrifty hero, adventurer, explorer and philanthropist. A cartoon variant of George Soros and Warren Buffet.



ABOVE LEFT: This is a brand new bank building in Riga, Latvia. A building that would have made the Soviet architecturalideologues very pleased. The power symbolism is overwhelming. No humility, beauty or local adaptation. Only raw power. Probably also an attempt to mimic Mitterrand’s new 'triumphal arch' in Paris. But what is it they triumph over here? That the architecture of communism ideals has been resurrected, now symbolising a stronghold of capitalism? And that in Latvia,  a country that just recently managed to break away from the Soviet Union's mighty power claws ...

ABOVE RIGHT: A new bank building in Udine, Italy. Good symbolism that clearly shows the state of the Italian economy. Truly honest architecture...

2. Pre-war banks in Lithuania

Description: Bank "The Bank of Lithuania"
The interwar Bank of Lithuania - Maironio str.25, Kaunas. Very impressive architecture of neoclassicism style. The Bank of Lithuania (1924–1938) was designed by Lithuanian professor Mykolas Songaila, though it was an unknown architect from Paris that won the international competition for the project of the bank building in 1924. The French architect’s project was deemed too complex and expensive by the commission. The building is still in a good condition today. There is a small exhibition of Lithuanian banknotes and coins of the First Republic time inside.

The Kedainiai bank of 1933.

Ukio bankas in Utena, 1934.

3. Jewish banks in Lithuania

In pre-war Lithuania, many members of the Jewish middle class, especially the educated strata, who had already experienced to some extent the establishing of Jewish autonomy, mobilized their resources for the strengthening of the social economic basis of the Jewish masses and their livelihood. With the blessing and initiation of the Economics Committee at the Ministry for Jewish Affairs and with the assistance of the “Foundation”, a national financial system was established of co-operative credit societies. By the end of 1920, these were already active in 44 cities and towns and were named “Peoples Bank” (in Yiddish Folksbank). In addition to the positive local economic activity (extending loans etc) they were also of importance in the social and cultural sphere. In a number of places, the community organs and other organizations also used the bank building. There were also cases of the bank granting study scholarships and prizes for cultural activities.

In order to co-ordinate and regulate the activities of the Peoples Banks in time of need and crises and other difficulties, a central institution was established in 1921, formally called the “Central Jewish Bank for the Encouragement of Co-operation.” 71 Peoples Banks throughout the country linked to it, and the number of (dues paying) members reached 11,000. Over the years, the capital assets of the institutions increased, as did also the amount of deposits and savings. Thanks to that, the conditions were eased under which the loans were granted to members and public institutions. In 1930, 85 Peoples Banks existed in Lithuania with 22,262 members. In that year, 11,953 loans were granted to them and to others in a total amount of 10,249,159 Lit (approximately one million Dollars).

Although the Peoples Bank was open to non-Jews as well, this figure was no more than 5%. The work in the offices, the correspondence and the daily work routine was conducted in Yiddish, and this was also true of the national conventions and conferences, which took place every few years. This was therefore, a Jewish banking system spread throughout the cities and towns of Lithuania. At that time, the total deposits amounted to 14,113,413 Lit (approximately $1.4 million), of which 46% came from the members, 16% from institutions and 48% from non-members. If we take into consideration the members families and all others requiring the Peoples Banks' services, and that of its associates, then we can conclude that they served about two thirds of the Jewish population. Unlike the similar Lithuanian banks, which enjoyed cheap governmental credit, the Peoples Banks had to depend on deposits only. In 1933, a special bank was established to assist Jewish farmers (Yiddisher Landwirten Bank).

The central office was in Kaunas with 31 branches spread out in towns through the land.

The Central Jewish Bank. Kaunas, 1923.

4. Banks during Soviet years

Description: C:\Users\Aage\Pictures\2012-02-22\002.jpg
I'm not going to use space on bank architecture that applied over the years Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. But I still wanted to show you, dear reader, a photo I took in November 1990 of a queue I discovered outside a 'bank' in Vokieciu street, Vilnius. Gorbachev had the same day informed that the 50-rouble note would not be worth anything in 48 hours, and everyone ran to their banks to change. I visited this and other banks by then, and still get chills on my back just thinking about how it was ...

After the liberation in 1991, Lithuania inherited the monobank system of the former Soviet Union, with specialized state banks serving specific branches of the economy. They quickly established a central bank at the core of their banking system. They were weak in bank management and lacked staffs with modern banking skills, and no system had an appropriate legal, regulatory, or supervisory framework governing the banks. In some instances fraud and corruption prevailed, encouraged by the relatively permissive regulatory and supervisory environment for banks that existed in the Baltics. All had to decide what to do with the remnants of the Soviet banking system at the same time that they encouraged the growth of the new private banking sector.

Estonia and Lithuania reconstituted the specialized Soviet banks as national state banks and began to privatize them. In some instances the state retains an ownership stake. In Lithuania the state increased its ownership share as part of a rescue effort for some former state banks. Latvia, by contrast, reconstituted the savings bank, then privatized branches of the remaining banks. The residual branches were merged into one bank, rehabilitated, and then subject to formal privatization.

The saving banks were privatized. In the early stages the three private banking systems were similar and grew rapidly. All three have had liberal policies toward licensing new commercial banks, believing that more banks would generate the competition needed to drive down deposit and lending rates, and provide the capital needed to support the emerging private sector.

Many new private banks were established by enterprises that wanted access to cheaper funding than was available from other banks. Little thought was given at first to the implications of this policy for banking safety and supervision.

5. ‘New’ banks in old buildings

Description: File:Gedimino prospektas 6 in Vilnius.JPG
Bank of Lithuania headquarters in Gediminas Avenue, built by the order of Józef Montwiłł in 1889–1891. The Bank of Lithuania is the central bank of the country, established 1922. It has the exclusive right to issue the currency of the Republic of Lithuania into circulation and to withdraw it. The principal objective of the Bank of Lithuania is maintain price stability, i.e. as low inflation as possible. In implementing this objective the Bank of Lithuania conducts monetary policy, supervision of credit institutions, management of foreign reserves and performs other functions.

DNB Bank headquarter, Basanavičiaus g. 26, Vilnius centre. Beautifully renovated but hardly practical.

NORDEA bank headquarter, Didžioji g., Vilnius centre. Nicely renovated Old Town building.

Description: SEB bankas HQ
SEB Bank headquarter, Gedimino pr 12, Vilnius centre. Nicely renovated building from postwar years.

6. ‘New’ banks in new buildings

DANSKE BANK headquarter, Saltoniškių g. 2, just outside the centre of Vilnius.
A good example of what I earlier called ‘mafia architecture’ – dark windows that cover a shapeless building... Indicates power, money, no transparency... Scary...

SWEDBANK headquarter, Konstitucijos pr. 20A, just outside the centre of Vilnius. Nice building with warm and light colour combinations. But what is the shape supposed to tell us? Two huge loudspeakers? I’m confused...


7. What should characterize a bank building of today, in the outskirts of Vilnius?

I think a combination of genuine, original building materials, such as yellow-brown-red bricks will be a good item to include in today's office and bank buildings outside the centre of Vilnius. In such a way we can pass on the legacy of centuries of good architectural traditions as we find them represented in the Vilnius Old Town. The more modern times may be well represented by a far more modern material, namely glass. Above I show three different ways to combine these two building materials. Distinct, modern, traditional and with dignity...

Remember that what is happening between the buildings is as important as the buildings themselves. It is often so that the way the surroundings are planned determine whether a project is successful or not. Again, holistic thinking. There are somany items you can play with, even outdoors. Think water, fountains, bridges, decorations, ornaments; items that tellsomething about what happens inside the building... And most important of all, all elements must have human dimensions. So that people who come to the building will be feeling well, feeling joy. Also, a bank building should radiate kindness and dignified service attitudes towards their customers ...

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us

- Winston Churchill


Category : Featured black / Real estate, building, design, architecture
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