Should bank branches occupy historical buildings?

Yes, they belong together
By Peter Kresánek

Yes, they belong together
By Peter Kresánek

"Many buildings that used to serve as banks, today fulfill their original purpose again, which I consider correct from the point of view of historical preservation. Only a building's original function can fully ensure that the interior's spirit remains."

Banks and towns have always belonged together. There would be no need for people to move into municipalities without a place to store their money. Bankers and businessmen have made an indelible mark on such proud cities as Venice, Genoa, and Antwerp. It wasn't different with the development of Bratislava, although these banks didn't resemble banks we know today.

The first bank to take root in Bratislava was Prvá Bratislavská Sporiteľňa (First Bratislava Savings Bank), established in the 1940's, which housed its vault on the ground floor. Now, after many years of the building being used for inadequate purposes, the site at Laurinská ulica 1 is Istrobanka's headquarters.

During the 20th century, Bratislava's urban facade changed as old bank buildings were converted into other uses, even if people didn't realize it, especially during the last couple of decades. As an example, there is a building on Michalská ulica which used to be the second district residents' Prvá Slovenská Sporiteľňa, but is now the Tatran publishing house and bookstore. Also Eskontná Banka, which was situated on Hlavné námestie, was established at the beginning of the century (1906), but now Koospol (a company specializing in foreign trade) uses this building. Many buildings that used to serve as banks, today fulfill their original purpose again, which I consider correct from the point of view of historical preservation, because only a building's original function can fully ensure that the interior's spirit remains.

Already in 1991, Bratislava's city council drew up a blueprint of where to place banking institutions. This master document includes lots of buildings where a bank was originally located. According to the city's plan, we started selling these former bank buildings, which were built by great architects and are historically significant. A good example of how we have maintained continuity between the past and the present is in the former Zemská Banka (Land Bank) building on Laurinská ulica. It is now a VÚB branch office and the site of a beautiful passage that connects Laurinská with Gorkého ulica and was given as a gift to a Bratislava resident after the building was renovated.

I believe that soon we will see a newly reconstructed Tatra Banka building on Námestie SNP rising from the ashes of a building devastated by Slovak Television. You can also see a fine exhibit of avant-garde architecture with the Slovenská Sporiteľňa building on the corner of Námestie SNP and Štúrova ulica, where they also renewed part of its passage. The bank complex on Gorkého ulica in Bratislava used to provide many services. Part of its buildings were used as a bank, a section provided cultural entertainment (P.O. Hviezdoslav Theater) and another swath was used as apartments. Slovenská Sporiteľňa's long monopoly of this complex resulted in this extensive space's basic deterioration, and Bratislava's residents were the ones who paid for it by not being able to use any of the bank's services in an architecturally attractive setting.

These are the reasons why I don't agree with criticism that banks have taken over Bratislava's most attractive buildings. On the contrary, I feel positive about this, because most banks invest a lot of money to renovate buildings originally designed for this purpose decades ago. I favor new bank branches in Bratislava and other Slovak cities. Their services are not acceptable for many investors today, but it is only a temporary feature. Experience from the development of prosperous cities show that the first signs of a city's rebirth is the existence of banks. And it follows that after there is investment into banks, there will be investments into a city's infrastructure.

Peter Kresánek is the mayor of Bratislava.

Yes, bank money reanimates a city

By Jaroslav Kilian

"There was one bank that wanted to build a new building some years back on Šafárikovo námestie. There was a public debate on it and protests organized by preservationists against the bank. Today, the place is empty."

If you look at Bratislava over the last few years, you can see new shops, and new bank branch offices. If you look at the real estate market, the most expensive plots are in the center. On the one hand, that's very positive.

That means that people have discovered the city's history, and the fact that important institutions want to be in the center shows that the center is important and that's like a magnet for other people to go there.

We wish to keep the continuity. We would like to have the opportunity to sit in a coffeehouse where people sat in the past. You have these types of coffeehouses in any city. These are places linked with cultural history, and that's why it's important to keep such a tie.

Banks are ready to put money into restoration. They want to move in and show, "Yes, we are important, we are in the center, and in a good location." I think that's positive. What's negative is if such an adaptation destroys the monument. If only the facade is kept, and a new style takes the place of the old, that's not preservation. But I'm sure banks are smart enough to understand that when they open a branch in a place that is culturally significant, it's good publicity for them to maintain it as it was.

Today, people want to live in cities' historical centers. There is a positive movement back into the cities. To preserve a city's history, you need money. In the past, there was a central government with a central budget and money flowed to restoration projects.

Today, such a flow doesn't exist. Where does a city now find the resources for restoration? It finds it at the bank. If a bank has money to open a new branch office, that's a source of restoration. That's very positive. Of course, it would be fine to have a coffeehouse. Why not if there are enough resources to build a coffeehouse? But I will never attack a bank and accuse them of destroying a historical environment because they are opening a branch office in a place that was a coffeehouse. It's foolish. It's a black and white view of the problem.

There was one bank that wanted to build a new building some years back on Šafárikovo námestie. There was a public debate on it and protests organized by preservationists against the bank. Today, the place is empty.

I didn't understand the reasons why there was such a mobilization against the bank. I will always be against a building's destruction when someone comes up with the idea to build a different building, but to fight against investment with a link to preservation is not a good approach.

There must be a dialogue between those who want to protect the historical environment and those who want to invest. When communication is established between these groups, I'm sure both will profit from it. One side will bring money, and the other side can help to preserve its culture.

I see all of these things as complimentary. The relationship between banks and coffeehouses are complimentary. If a bank opens a branch office, the clients need a coffeehouse close by. Likewise, people who go shopping need money to go to the shops. It would be foolish to open 20 shops on one street; just the same, banks are not so foolish as to build 20 branches on the same street. They will distribute their branch offices to find their clients, and we, the city, can influence that development.

Jaroslav Kilian is an architect and he helped found a program on architecture and urban heritage conservation at Academia Istropolitana.

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