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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 02-Dec-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 17

Wordcount: 816

Who are banks trying to impress? It’s certainly not their customers



I love how they call the banking system the four pillars policy. It sounds so staunch and muscular, so Doric, as though these pillars were devotedly – humbly even – holding something up. As though it was them giving their all to support our obscene profits and exec lifestyles, not vice versa.

They’ve been lucky with the numbers. I mean six was roughly plausible as a pillar count on Keating’s watch – until two got Costelloed, and then there were four (which sounds paradoxically stronger, but isn’t).

But what if the pillars left standing had been three, not four? Suddenly the whole policy sounds less like a roof over your head than some whoops-a-daisy milking stool (which, come to think of it, might be apt).

Speaking of holding things up, the NAB held thousands of us up over the weekend, including me, with missing transactions, heart-stopping zero balances, major sums etherised for days and then, the final indignity, lockout. Sure, they’ve apologised. But that doesn’t make it OK. Any other business that charged me twice to access my own money through machines I only use because it no longer builds banks, and then can’t operate either the machines or the computers that replace them properly would have to beg me, bended knee, not to storm off and take my debt mountain elsewhere.

But the same attitude – and this is what I really can’t forgive, considering what I pay them per annum – informs those few, rubbish buildings the banks do still build.

Four spring to mind; one per pillar. There’s the big, shiny-new NAB and ANZ buildings in Melbourne Docklands, and the big shiny-new Westpac and Commonwealth buildings in Sydney docklands. All are HQs, all super-glassy and schmick, all on cheap or leasehold land, and all designed for short-term rental and the quick flick.

All are from intelligent, highly regarded architects. All have won (or will win) multiple awards. But not one gives a flying fiscal fig for the public.

Should they? These days? Consider. There was a time when bank managers were dull little chaps, equivalent of, say, school teachers.

Civilisation was de rigueur then. Pretty much every bank, church, school or hospital was expected to devote buckets of time and money simply to making people feel good. Not the high-rollers, the fatcats, the execs but ordinary run-of-the-mill humans. That’d be inconceivable these days. We don’t expect it, as though no longer moved by a gracious entrance or a burnished, soft-lit banking hall. And they don’t volunteer it.

Take a walk downtown. Check it out. There are a dozen or so of what I think of as the Martin Place banks. They’re not all on Martin Place, but they’re all reminders of an un-recreatable past.

Specifically, there are two old Commonwealth banks (Savings and Trading, respectively) on Martin Place, with their grand halls, bronze filigree and marbled columns. There’s the NAB (once the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney) on George, with its soaring trachite columns and triple-height space. There’s the Westpac (old Bank of NSW) next to it. And there’s the pretty, Italianate ANZ (once the Bank of Australasia) on George and Liverpool – designed by Vernon and Wardell in 1886, and now the 3 Wise Monkeys Pub.

With a “family hold back” approach to architectural goodies like space, light and dignity, these old banks lavished their aesthetic energies on the street and the public banking chambers. Staff offices played second fiddle, being by comparison dingy and cramped, with small windows, dark furniture and light-well views.

The new buildings invert this approach. In Melbourne, BVN’s NAB and Hassell’s ANZ are indeed sumptuous interiors, but in a way that has emphatically nothing to offer the public. Both enjoy award-winning interiors that tantalise their “workplace communities” with light, visual interest, social interaction and endless ways to enrich the working day. Their exteriors, however, could hardly be more perfunctory; cold, thin and superficial, aligning wholly with the office-park orthodoxy that has become a universal docklands norm.

The two Sydney buildings – JPW’s Westpac Place on Kent and FJMT’s Commonwealth Bank at Darling Harbour – are marginally kinder to the public, but only marginally.

Westpac offers a series of terraced coffee-gardens that, although publicly accessible, are really for the workers, but still it gives the street the bum’s rush.

The Commonwealth Bank, nearing completion, looks like a jolly nice place to work. But its public offering, with those slick glass curves, is as meagre as the egregious SegaWorld building it replaces.

You can see why the banks like it. Renting space in anonymous buildings lets you downsize or bug off without commitment or compunction, at a moment’s notice.

But where those old, dignified and dignifying facades manifested a Christian-based morality, the new faceless jobs represent a morality based on what-you-can-get-away-with, and then some.

Maybe, like adapting to climate change, we just rename the policy, and four pillars becomes four drains.


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