︎ 2017

A Bank for Burbank


With Caroline Chao
Harvard Graduate School of Design



This project is really three projects - one site in Burbank, two banks across an intersection, three takes on the various meanings of the word ‘relief’ at different scales. ‘Relief’ is an ambiguous word with meanings familiar and unfamiliar to architecture. Some of these meanings might imply subtle conflicts, which we like.

At the level of the site, we feel relief in the form of an urban relaxation. In direct contrast to the highly saturated context of Burbank, a neutral gray square is imposed on an intersection. It applies a layer of blankness to the existing urban elements, like streetlights and signage in order to bring them into calm conversation with one another. Around the edges, the massing of a perfect square is broken up into 5 buildings by the intersecting streets. They create soft corners at a hard intersection, with open space and plenty of parking. Here we find relief in low saturation and high convenience. The two L-shaped masses are a bit like over-scaled strip malls, making them feel familiar to Los Angeles. Ours are a bit taller, and much more blank. On closer examination, we find that moments of shallow relief indicate something different going on behind the face of each bank. What appeared the same from a distance is revealed to be quite distinct.

There’s a particular kind of relief that comes from finally figuring something out. Bank 1 tries to make architecture from this feeling. It takes the sterile blankness of the modern bank and injects a series of strange scales and bad fits to produce moments that satisfy our need for the reveal.

Moving numbers around the world still requires stuff - cables, fans, monitors, calculators, printers, and buttons. Not to mention, there are still people who need to press those buttons. One problem with the modern bank is that when these things are hidden away, the resulting public spaces are left awkward and empty. Actually, the entire idea of a bank could be reduced to two just kinds of boxes: the server and the cubicle. Bank 1 takes these two things seriously as raw material for architecture. In these models, we see two kinds of massing which can only be distinguished at the level of the detail.

The server is where most of our banking actually happens. It stands to reason that a bank should be full of them, yet typically the server is hidden away in the basement or outsourced somewhere in the desert. They are too ugly, too loud, and too complicated to be treated seriously as an element of architecture. In Bank 1, servers are abstracted and treated more like core or poche, big tectonic blocks whose presence in the building is both awkward and monumental. Their brash technical appearance is reduced to its minimum, confusing its reading.

The cubicle, Bank 1’s other protagonist, is a thin partition that defines something like an office. Typically we associate them with the uncanny sameness of the modern office, but these little half-rooms for one or two can play interesting games of perception. If we misread the cubicle’s scale and treat it like something a bit closer to a room, we might open it up to new readings and use it to compose space, rather than just fill it.

When these two banking objects are abstracted to maximum blankness and given shapes and sizes that make render them indistinguishable, strange effects emerge. Things that appear solid are revealed as hollow even when edges are invisible. Architecture becomes a kind of guessing game and produces moments of relief. For example, what looks at first to be an elevator call button is actually a power switch for a server. Searching for the bathroom, you may accidentally interrupt someone’s conference call.

Servers and cubicles are packed into the narrow space of the L. Sometimes the fit is bad and the boxes need to tilt. Sometimes the fit is good but you can’t quite find the door. The resultant space is tectonic and cavernous on the inside, while reading as nearly flat from the outside. Only occasionally do the uncomfortable gaps between boxes produce minimal openings on the exterior, hinting at but never fully describing the mass’ contents. The gaps are like reveals, in as many ways as that word might be understood. Little moments of visual connection become important for the kind of relief that Bank 1 sets up. Here and there, things poke in and out of gaps to give hints and misdirections about architecture. We might feel a bit of relief when an office chair reveals that a mass isn’t so massive after all.