The following short rant appeared originally in Icon (issue 112) and I thought it worth posting up here as it's not appeared on-line before. The photograph is my own and nearly resulted in me being arrested.
Judged alongside their other ‘crimes’, the design of high street banks would seem to rank pretty low. But my irritation at the state of their interiors long predates Libor and government bailouts.
I have been going into my local HSBC for something like fifteen years, during which time it has had numerous ‘facelifts’, each more awful than the last. Matters are made worse by the fact that this particular branch is housed in a fine, Edwardian building which has been defaced with polystyrene tiles, crude strip lighting and clumsy spatial divisions. Hanging a suspended ceiling below a beautiful, classical dome or driving a cheap partition into some elegant timber mouldings, may not be a crime in every branch, but no bank is entirely innocent.
There are common problems. One is the plethora of services and personnel involved. As well as counter-staff there are people called ‘business advisors’ who lurk inside strange booths or perch on random, primary-coloured stools offering pre-scripted advice. Then there are various people who merely mill around the entrance area asking if you need to deposit a cheque or borrow £50,000. The walls and much of the floor area is taken up with posters and banners beseeching students to commit to a lifetime of customer loyalty in exchange for some free headphones.
The essence of all this confusion lies in the fact that banks no longer quite know what they are offering. Ultimately they would prefer to mutate into an on-line only service, one where the customer is free to wander around in virtual confusion with no staff to complain-to. However, they recognise that people remain bewilderingly old-fashioned when it comes to where they put their money and cling to the certainties offered by a man behind a counter and a biro attached with a beaded metal chain.
The endless revamps, with their cheery fonts and cheesy furniture, mask an underlying confusion at to what a high street banks’ actually for. It’s not a shop, or an office, or an institution, but a strange hybrid of all three. The result is a thoroughly dissonant experience combining the remnants of old-fashioned service with the contemporary hysteria of full-on commercialism. All this occurs within in an atmosphere of cheap’n’cheerful high street branding shoehorned into once elegant buildings that now seem like relics from more confident times.