Building an image: bank headquarters

What role can an impressive building play in shaping a bank's image? Vision finds out

When it comes to defining “exciting” companies, banks are not usually the first institutions that spring to mind. But as the likes of Apple or BMW realise that a spectacular corporate building can express the identity and character of a company through its architecture, so banks are slowly catching on. A new list of the top 10 banking buildings in the world boasts some of the most intriguing constructions of the 21st century - as well as one groundbreaking Dubai tower from 1998.

That building is Emirates NBD’s headquarters, its sail shape later echoed by one of the Middle East’s most iconic buildings, the Burj Al Arab. And Matthew Keutenius, Senior Data Analyst for Emporis, the global building data provider who put together the list, thinks the extra thought that went into the Emirates NBD HQ made a real difference. 

“Banks do like to reflect through their buildings that they’re in tune with and a part of local culture,” he says. “And the interesting thing is that Emirates NBD is one of the earlier skyscrapers in Dubai. So its singular design is also really important to the external image it wanted to project too - of an impressive company to be taken seriously on the world stage.”

Which is a theme repeated again and again in a list deliberated over by Emporis’ editorial team, in which New York’s Bank Of America Tower (2009) comes out on top. The sculptured glass structure left a very strong impression on Keutenius himself - and reflects the idea that the “statement” building can speak of financial power. 

“And that’s the key,” he continues. “Banks like to say ‘we’re modern, we’re up with the times', and exciting buildings can reflect those values. So Hong Kong’s Bank Of China Tower (1990) and more recently the exoskeleton-like Macquarie Bank Centre in Sydney (2009) make a very strong impact. When you look at ING House in Amsterdam (2002) it appears to be built on stilts, but this unusual design again made a really modern statement.”

“It’s clear that for a global corporation to own a spectacular HQ in a world city, boosts the profile of that company, both among its staff and potential customers,” agrees Peter Smith, whose recent book City is a fascinating look into the role the city plays in our lives. He calls the advent of skyscrapers in the early 20th century a form of corporate advertising - “brand names written in steel and stone across the city’s skyline”. Banking has finally caught on - even in a vertical city like Hong Kong, IM Pei’s bamboo-inspired Bank Of China tower remains distinctive. 

“It stands proud in many millions of tourist photos of the city taken from Victoria Harbour. Commuters on the ferry from Kowloon see it every day,” he agrees. “It is written into their mental map of the city, an essential part of the city’s identity.”

The challenge, then, is for companies to become synonymous with their cities through their buildings.

“Exactly,” says Smith. “For structures such as IM Pei’s, one can scarcely imagine the city without them.”