Urban development
Bank Architecture in Germany and Ireland

Frankfurt | Photo: © Getty Images

While a raging discussion concerning banking and monetary policy within Europe continues apace as part of the European Union expansion as a whole, the architecture of its banking institutions, the European Central Bank [ECB], the German Central Bank [Bundesbank], and the Central Bank of Ireland, mirrors the divergent conditions between these bodies and serves to illustrate these growing differences.

Europe’s New Kid on the Block : the ECB Headquarters in Frankfurt am Main

At the heart of the discussion is the ECB, as it controls and influences member States‘ fiscal policy. This powerhouse is currently set to vacate its rented locations in the heart of Frankfurt’s banking district and occupy a new stronghold in Frankfurt’s Ostend, adding a new landmark to the Frankfurt skyline that is visible at great distances. A starting point for the design of the towers was the urban perspective of the city of Frankfurt. At a height of around 185 meters, the double tower, with its polygonal shape and east-west orientation, has a striking profile.

In a recent press interview entitled: ‚Towers are a Sign of Power‘,Wolf D. Prix, founder of Vienna-based architectural practice Coop Himmelb(l)au, described how the European Central Bank had expressed a wish for an iconic building ensemble which would communicate transparency. This transparency is touted by the glass-clad multi-faceted towers’ structure, reaching towards the sky joined by an atrium, also glazed, described by the architect as ‚a vertical city‘. The former market hall on the site has been refurbished and now functions as an ‘urban foyer‘, housing conference and visitor facilities. This is married to the towers by means of an entrance building structure which traverses it, clearly marking the entrance to the ECB.

The Sobriety of the Architecture of the German Bundesbank

The soaring verticality of the new ECB headquarters has been scathingly referred to by critics as a ‘Tower of Babel’ claiming that the ECB is ‘overstepping the mark’ by exceeding its mandate in Europe on fiscal matters. The bold imagery is in stark contrast to the architecture of the Bundesbank (Architects: H.G. Beckert, G.Becker). Its own headquarters in Frankfurt dating from the 1970s, in the ‘International Style’, are sober in tone and grounded through the horizontality of its architecture.

The vastly different language of the two institutions’ buildings is a vivid reflection of the ever widening rift between their ideas for the Euro project. These differences have escalated to such an extent that challenges have been taken by the Bundesbank against ECB policy all the way to the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany.

The Irish Central Bank Dilemma : Proposed Move to Toxic Bank Headquarters

In Ireland the Central Bank is set to vacate its current location at Dame Street in Dublin from its headquarters in one of Dublin’s iconic buildings by architect Sam Stephenson. This highly assertive building with its bold outline is infamous for its brashness and has evoked many passions over the years, ranging from revulsion to admiration. It was constructed in breach of planning permission with an air of defiance during a cruel recession in the 1970s and recently its plaza afforded a camping site to the ‘Occupy’ protestor’s movement.

However, although it ultimately remains a symbol of modern Ireland, the collapse of the banking system within Ireland has emasculated its robust image somewhat in tandem with the Central Bank’s perceived inability to control banks’ practices before, during and after the banking collapse in the country.

The decision by the Central Bank to purchase the partially finished structure of the proposed: ‘Bank that broke Ireland’, Anglo Irish Bank headquarters is a strategy mired in public controversy. Anglo Irish Bank deliberately misled the Central Bank in respect of the enormity of extent of its debts prior to a massive bailout, a mistake which for Irish taxpayers will be forced to continue to pay for many years to come.

Designs for the Anglo Irish Headquarters reflect its bold approach during the heady era of its excesses. The original design of the project was composed of two eight-storey buildings, slightly angular in form, both sporting fully glazed double skin facades. A German glazing company, contracted to construct these facades, was unsuccessful in its court challenge for compensation when, following the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank, the project did not proceed. Sitting at the edge of the Irish Financial Services Centre the unfinished structure has become synonymous with the failure of the Irish financial sector. Planning permission for the new design is a modified version of the original scheme for Anglo Irish Bank by The O’ Toole Partnership Architects.

The Architecture of Retreat in Banks

An award-winning competition by GKMP Architects for the Central Bank’s building following its vacation envisages the establishment of a city school at the premises of the former headquarters. The Anglo Irish Bank building on St. Stephens Green has been vacated, its workforce has retreated into the leafy suburbs. The silvered letters were dismantled and are on display at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

The once-confident language of the towers of Ulster Bank on Dublin’s George’s Quay no longer bears any relationship to the bank which is shouldered with bad loans and is desperately trying to pursue creditors in high profile cases abroad. Other banks have left the country permanently. Headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland which were completed in 2004 by architects RKD on Stephens Green are no longer occupied. The former headquarters of Danske Bank are also for sale, and are likely to follow the fate of former older bank buildings in Dublin city centre and find re-use as commercial outlets.

Graffiti at the ECB and Central Bank HQ

A recent unexpected development in relation to the new ECB towers and the Central Bank of Ireland, is the arrival of graffiti on both sites. In Frankfurt, hoarding at the ECB site has been filled with messages from many artists, including artists from crisis-hit countries like Spain and Greece. Although many of the images are critical, these have been sanctioned by the ECB as part of community projects it is funding. In June the structure of the New Central Bank of Ireland headquarters was daubed in graffiti by trespassers. Slogans included names of politicians with the words ‘Irish Traitor’ beside them.

The challenge facing the architects of banking institutions over the next years in inspiring public confidence remains a significant undertaking and one of considerable architectural ingenuity.