Gold Standard Exploits: Bank Building in Colonial Johannesburg

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

In 1862 the Standard Bank of British South Africa was formed in London. A so-called ‘imperial bank’, it aggressively acquired smaller banks in South Africa, building its asset base substantially throughout the 1860s. In 1872, after just ten years of operation, it successfully subsumed its chief competitor, the London and South African Bank. Now unrivalled, the growth of the Standard became synonymous with that of South Africa itself. But the Standard really came into its own during the Transvaal gold boom of the 1880s. Its presence on the Rand went from a mere canvas tent in 1886 to a hulking, six-storey neo-Baroque stone ‘palace’ in 1908, setting new standards in banking architecture.

Huge profits were to be had in Johannesburg for those institutions that could position themselves as indispensable to trade, offering reliable exchange, deposit, and bullion export services, as well as providing advances on working capital for mining companies. There were heavy risks involved, but by the mid-1890s the Standard’s Transvaal operation was contributing 40 percent of the bank’s overall profits. Its Johannesburg branch not only boasted the biggest banking hall in the world, but was at the forefront of financial instrument technology, including an in-house assay and smelting operation and facilities for the safe storage of bullion.

Yet, it was perceived by the Afrikaans community as a covert instrument of British imperialism, raising political tensions. Moreover, it was an enabler of workplace exploitation of white, black, and imported Chinese coolie labour, encouraging social tensions through the exacerbation of capitalist competition. Drawing on Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital, and Patrick Joyce’s ideas concerning institutional structuring and ‘performance’, this paper will consider the socio-economic dimensions and fallout of the Standard’s operation in relation to its architectural formation in a time of intense imperial expansion and colonial war.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 14 Apr 2023
EventSociety of Architectural Historians Annual Conference 2023 - Bonaventure Hotel, Montreal, Canada
Duration: 12 Apr 202316 Apr 2023


ConferenceSociety of Architectural Historians Annual Conference 2023
Abbreviated titleSAH2023
Internet address

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • architecture
  • banking
  • finance
  • colonialism
  • empire
  • British
  • gold
  • South Africa


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