British Bank of the Middle East
The 45th Bahrain Annual Fine Arts Exhibition
Manama, BH
20.02.19 — 30.03.19

The installation consists of a model and an accompanying text which explore the recent alterations to the British Bank of the Middle East - proposed and implemented - as reflective of existing conceptions of, and within, national aesthetic consciousness. Even in instances when aesthetic judgments seem haphazard, and to some unjustified, they are, in fact, historically contingent. The seemingly instinctual presumptions embody an attempt at both historical and self-reflexivity, predicated on the ways the past, present and imagined future is conceived at a given time.

The Arena
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel
Abdulla Janahi
Layla Al Shaikh
Anastasiia Noga

Accompanying text
A British practice, Wilson Mason & Partners commenced in 1926 with J.M. Wilson’s design of a palace for King Faisal of Iraq, subsequently developing on a United Kingdom-Middle East axis throughout the twentieth century, working almost exclusively on oil and chemical companies, banks and, to a lesser extent, other commercial commissions. Oil was variably founded in the early twentieth century across the Middle East, with imperial Britain the foreign nation then most involved in exploitation. Expedited by its founder’s political connections (Wilson had set up the Public Works department in Baghdad under the High Commissioner, Sir Arnold Wilson), oil was also to be at the core of the Wilson Mason practice, who would work with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – now British Petroleum – over the next century.

The very endurance of its relationships with its major clients allowed the practice to draw on precedence with every commission, while its growing portfolio within Middle East allowed it to develop a degree of contextual engagement that constituted a divergence from the work of other colonial architects whose style was essentially English, such as Edwin Lutyens, under whom Wilson had apprenticed. Throughout the century, it experienced the shifts in the scale of construction, and by extension, the penetration of concrete blocks, natural and artificial stonework, and terrazzo tiles.

By 1958, Wilson Mason would establish permanent offices in Tehran and Aden, followed by others in Doha and Abu Dhabi from 1976. The expanse of its commissions for the oil industry would naturally lead to connections with a variety of banks, with the infiltration of imperial and colonial banking and the diversification of Middle Eastern economies. The British Bank of the Middle East would become one of its earliest of such clients in the mid 1930s, when it commissioned its new premises in Bahrain, a British protectorate since the late nineteenth century. Over the next decades, the practice would work on branches of the British Bank in around forty locations across the Gulf states, Iran and North Africa, gradually incorporating air-conditioning, sound-proofing, telecommunications and computerised systems, as well as open-plans - developments in bank design originating from the City of London, the fulcrum of global finance.

The branch on Al Khalifa Avenue, completed by 1976, was Wilson Mason’s third for its long-standing client on the site. (HJSW Ltd London, 1986) By then, the practice’s sustained assimilation into the region could be identified in a seemingly formalistic regionalist sensitivity, generated by a combination of ornamentation – evident on an entrance adorned with Dilmun seals – reflecting ideological concerns of a now postcolonial context; and an aesthetic functionalism defined by climatic performance: its largely open-plan ensured that spaces received sunlight from long-strip side windows, allowing for a restrained front elevation with minimal openings. Inside, riven finish quartzite was used to pave public areas and the main staircase, as well as for the toe recesses of banking hall counters. These were faced in white marble, which also clad the lift housing walls and the main stairway of the entrance foyer. Teak panels faced the walls in executive offices and the free standing columns throughout. (Bank Head Office in Bahrain, 1977)

Until recently, the British Bank had stood abandoned within the souk, a commercial district with more than 130 later-modern architectures which are largely similarly dilapidated, when it was acquired by a private developer and underwent significant renovations. Initial proposals indicated a considerable ‘Orientalization’ of the main, north-facing façade, congruent with a wider tendency in alterations to said structures, in contradiction to established preservation practices. While the building was already undergoing renovations, and since it is located within the boundaries of Manama’s protected historic core, the relevant authorities proposed to restrain alterations to the entire building, and suggested to rehabilitate it to host the private investor’s activities. The concluding compromise would, however, result in the implemented architectural changes to the façade, generated to minimize further impacts.

Although the ornamented entrance is maintained, six large openings across the façade were added to provide natural lighting and views to executive offices. The perforated screens as well as the marble cladding in the lower-part were both removed. Said alterations, together with partitions added to enclose smaller workspaces throughout, reconfigure what constituted the building’s aesthetic functionalism and climatic performance. Additional interior changes include the removal of the remaining marble from the entrance foyer and the vertical circulation area, although the mural by British industrial designer William Mitchell has been maintained.

The British Bank is a tangible, single lens through which to question dominant discourses specifically because of where it stands on notions of colonialism, national aesthetic consciousness and modernity. Consistent with the logic of the post-structuralist approach to resist any attempts of invalidation of certain appreciations of history and the formulation of a canonized, absolutist judgement, the installation shows the history not as linear or progressive, but multilayered and constantly in flux. It allows us to explore notions of multiplicity vis-à-vis historical and self-reflexivity, as predicated on fragmented individual and collective identities, without drawing conclusions on the built form.

The British Bank of the Middle East is reflective of existing conceptions of, and within, national aesthetic consciousness. The original design of the building, proposed renovations and the finalized alterations reflect divergent approaches to engagement with historical context. Even in instances when aesthetic judgments seem haphazard, and to some unjustified, they are, in fact, historically contingent. The seemingly instinctual presumptions embody an attempt at both historical and self-reflexivity, predicated on the ways the past, present and imagined future is conceived at a given time, and are, thus, indicative of wider processes that inform these reflexivities. In order to confront any attempts of invalidation, aesthetic judgments should be understood not as universal but dependent on material conditions of different actors within the social structures which uphold the economic system.

Recent developments surrounding the branch facilitate a nuanced comprehension and re-consideration not only of the legislative boundaries in Bahrain, but of the underlying connections between economic system and structures of knowledge production. The building of the British Bank was brought about by colonial structures, while the regionalist modernism it exemplified was subsequently sidelined by those very structures which aligned canonizations of the modern movement with economic supremacies established through imperial legacy. Contemporary architectural culture, still focused on the New York-London-Venice axis that was consolidated in the late 1970s, continues to sustain these hierarchical systems of cultural dismissal.

While the British Bank is a more explicit tool of global capitalism, the tangible facets of the urban sphere might embody its values tacitly - the infiltration of modern buildings into the souk reifies the economic aspirations of modernization. Resistance to these processes, in this case, to the infiltration of foreign banking earlier in the century and heightened anti-British sentiment later on had, at times, clear spatial manifestations. While both the built environment and the spatial events it contains are reflective of many conflicting processes, it is important to consider the role of the intangible in Manama’s urban history through both historiography and preservation.

Bank Head Office in Bahrain; Architects: Wilson Mason & Partners. (1977) Interior Design, March 1977, p. 129. HJSW Ltd London. (1986).
Wilson Mason & Partners: 60th Anniversary. [booklet] HSBC Group Archives, HQ HSBCPR 0300-0000a. London.

69B, Road 1501. Suq al-Qaisariya. Muharraq