Comments/Background: Like photographers, architects face a complicated burden. A proposed structure should provide shelter and utility, but these are just the basics. There are building codes and construction technologies to consider, both of which are constantly changing. Changing styles and genres come into play, regional, historical and projected into the future. So while blueprints can sometimes yearn to be recognized as art, they are always brought down to earth by one thing or another: a client’s whim perhaps, or material costs or construction challenges. engineering, or a number of other considerations.
Perhaps the most important X-factor is that architectural design is a public act. A building joins the fabric of the common space for an indefinite period, so it must play well with others under changing circumstances. But as carefully planned, the future is uncertain. The fate of any building eventually falls into the hands of subsequent generations—in the “confidence of the people”, if you will—and what happens down the line is anybody’s guess. In fact, as Stewart Brand said in the little classic How buildings learn, unforeseen adaptations are often more likely than prescribed uses. To refute Louis Sullivan’s maxim “Form follows function”, Brand’s sly answer: “Function melts form”.
Consider the glut of buildings constructed to house regional banks in the cities of the eastern seaboard of the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Conceived at the very beginning of modern finance, they were built to project security in an era of cyclical economic disruption. After the boom-bust crashes of 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, and 1907, banks sought to portray an aura of stability and security. For better or worse, in the early 1900s this meant neoclassical architecture that referenced the great civilizations of the past. Hundreds of new banks adopted Greek and Roman revival styles, with imposing columns in front of various vestibules, arches and cupolas. On their upper prows were often inscribed classic letters with reassuring words like “TRUST” and “SAVINGS”, as well as olive laurels, great seals and pairs of statuette eagles.
With stone or concrete foundations, these institutions were meant to last, and many are still standing. But the neighborhoods around them have changed, along with transportation options, ownership, and overall aesthetics. Most have survived their intended use as bank vaults. They remain scattered in their original locations, but their outer forms have long since been melted by function.
Thirty-three of these buildings make up Michael Vahrenwald’s latest monograph The trust of the people. He shot them recently over a span of nine years – 2012-2020, when the US was booming again since its last collapse – but most can trace its roots back a century or more. Their central structures are remarkably intact. But a hundred years is a long time, and exterior renovations are inevitable. Although most (presumably zoned for commerce?) remain business-oriented, they don’t seem very banking anymore, and the extra amenities have moved away from neoclassical. Instead, many retailers and consumer chain stores house advertisements and signs printed on inexpensive materials.
Vahrenwald seems to have emphasized the more chintzy and demeaning examples for his book. The old Lincoln Savings Bank in Brooklyn has become the headquarters of a McDonald’s, for example, while the nearby Twenty-Sixth Ward bank doesn’t even deserve to be occupied. It has been clumsily modified, abandoned and graffitied. A once esteemed New York thrift bank is now a CVS pharmacy. Etc. These poor buildings are of course inanimate objects, and smell nothing. But it’s hard not to feel empathy for them. At one time, they were the pride of their towns, perhaps appearing in photos or postcards from the Chamber of Commerce. Now they hide timidly on back roads, draped in banners like a two-bit show horse howling rude corks: SUPER DISCOUNT 100% HUMAN HAIR. PUCKERS FLAVOR VODKA $15.99. AVAILABLE SPACE. ORTHODONTICS ORAL SURGERY. We must admire the incessant desire of the Americans to reinvent themselves and to negotiate. But still, yuck. How the mighty fell.
Wahrenwald took a similar photographic approach with each bank. He usually stands about 50 yards away, possibly across the street (an early prototype included in the sequel indicates that the crop loosened as he developed the project). From this vantage point, he can capture the whole building, warts and all. Most are simple one or two story structures. He generally photographs directly, treating facades like architectural portraits. The banks fit comfortably inside its frames, their sides rising vertically with an architectural lens. It could also capture vernacular details, including other buildings, vegetation, sidewalks, and infrastructure. But these elements only appear as contextual support surrounding the featured attraction.
The resulting book is a sort of typology, but with enough diversity of place, time, and style to avoid uniformity. Some photos show snow on the ground, or fog. After so many decades of change, it seems unlikely that these buildings can still cast a regal aura, but they do, and Vahrenwald does his best to capture something from their best days. “When I started photographing,” he wrote, “I couldn’t help but record the stubborn optimism of these buildings, how grand they were fortresses built to last, all unlike to what they are today. It fascinates me that, in their current state, these structures still project so much of their former authority.
The trust of the people is not an overtly political book. There are no events, slogans, actions or people. It’s a simple look at the built environment. But it is difficult to witness the fate of these buildings without reflecting on broader currents. Night peddlers’ adaptation of Big Old Banks is a caricature (pardon the pun: thin facade) of societal change, perhaps with the makings of a morality tale. He could rule on the plywood veneer of the US economy, with boom and bust cycles inevitable, no matter how strong its foundations. Like many photographs, these images attempt to preserve and resurrect the past. They might be a subcategory of ruined porn, although they are approached in a more thoughtful way than most of this genre. “The project is not about what I like or dislike,” he wrote, “but how strange these buildings are today in a world where the aesthetics (as well as the simple facts) of power , wealth and class have all fundamentally changed.Even if they don’t have an opinion, her photos seem to make a statement.
Beyond his photo career, Vahrenwald also has some experience as a bookmaker. He is the co-founder of publisher ROMAN NVMERALS, which has printed several notable photo books since its inception in 2015. This book is not one of them – it is published by Kominek instead – but it bears proof of clever design all along. Gold-tinted flyleaves, for example, and Swiss binding with easily flattened boards. Changing paper types and reproduction effects delineate parts of the book, while title and header fonts are bold and innovative. The title MICHAEL VAHRENWALD THE PEOPLE’S TRUST takes up two full pages in huge crimson capitals (150 pt?), an imposing nod to the classic stance of its content. MICHAEL SCHEPPE’S ESSAY is written on the next double page in the same bold typeface, and the German critic’s long informative essay lives up to the font. It’s quite expansive and meandering, ruminating on Venetian art, financial history, sculpture, architecture, Trumpism, and other subjects in over thirty pages. A helpful back index lists photos by thumbnail, location, and date.
Perhaps the cleverest and most incisive design element, and an offhand counterweight to Scheppe’s academic weight, is a short story by Richard Brautigan titled “Complicated Banking Problems”, recounting a dreamy visit to the bank teller in surreal prose . It’s tucked away in the photo stream and strikes such a quirky and humorous note that I found myself laughing out loud. I guess the story touches tangentially on banking, but it seems more about everyday absurdities and Brautigan’s poetic observations. Who says banking has to be serious all the time? If the trust of the people sometimes fails in its duty, the problem is surmountable. Life goes on. Buildings find new uses, adaptations and future missions.
Collector’s point of view: Michael Vahrenwald is represented by the sales agency ESTO (here). Vahrenwald’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so direct contact with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar) is probably the best option for interested collectors to follow.