Transforming urbanscapes: ATM in cities

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Dec 17, 2010 06:20 AM |
This is the first in series of posts where I will try and articulate the transformation in the urban landscape that one can attribute either directly or in-directly to information and communication technologies. I am keen in discussing changes that are more fundamental in terms of architectural typology and spatial constructs and all this while looking for things that are specific to an Indian city. And that is where the story becomes rather interesting; Indian cities are unique and so when a shift occurs in its material constructs it must be analyzed with reference to its peculiar context.

Automated Teller Machines (ATM) are an accepted part of the city landscape. They are omnipresent and expected to be near you anytime anywhere. Not surprising the other common interpretation of the acronym ATM has popularly been “Any Time Money”! The functioning of ATM is absolutely dependent on the connection of these machines with the mother server of the bank. Without the networked connection through internet, the ATMs machines are dead and practically cannot do anything. ATMs are dependent on internet and the very presence of thousands of ATM spaces in our cities is perhaps the most reoccurring reminder of the spatial alteration of the urban landscape. This phenomenon needs to be dissected further and I will try and answer the following questions in the process.

What is the nature of the ATM spatial typology and how does it fit with the physical context?
What are the meaning that are attached to the ATM space and what do they now signify?

Occurrence, Repetition and Assurance

ATM’s like the hoardings of a recent advertisement campaign repeats itself at most part of the city. The same banner, color, bright light and the bored security guard at the gate. Absolutely predictable, repetitive and thoroughly efficient. They are suppose to do a simple function of vending currency note at most times. But they are now an important element in the city that repeats and can be easily identified. They are not only doing the function of vending money but also serve as an important advertisement of the bank and announce its presence in the city. ATM’s multiple occurrence in a city surely  reinforces the idea of the aspirational middle class of Indian cities.

ATM’s dots the urban landscape while glowing in the night when every other shop and establishments are asleep. A 24 hour petrol pump, the all night coffee shop and of course the railway station tea shop that open all night are the other such night owls that reassure us that the city is not dead and everything will start again tomorrow.

These all night establishment have an important urban function; that of sheltering the lost souls in the night and keeping alive the idea of a city on the move.

The Private in Public: Banking in the City Spaces

The ATMs are extensions of the banks that reach out in the city. They are the point of receiving money (our money) from the bank. Banking has extended to public place and this is a very important phenomenon. Historically of course, informal banking has been taking place in street corners and small shacks in most old areas, but again only in certain parts of the city that are associated with such activities.

The ATM’s extend banking in public domain, but through a rather scared and conditioned spaces of the room where the solitary ATM machines lie. The ATM machines occur everywhere signifying that a lifestyle in a consumer society. But ATMs as extension of banking space, are creating a rather interesting contradiction. Banks were never public places really and privacy was always a very important component of banking. Traditionally customers never did transactions in full public view. Money was collected, counted and snugly inserted in wallet or a non-noticeable bag in the comfort of the high counter and inside a fairly semi-public space of the bank. The space of the bank became the place of transaction in extremely limited public view. Moreover the view was not really of strangers but of fellow customers as worried about privacy as the “viewed” subject themselves.

The ATM’s present a new problem; as at one level it creates a space in many parts of the city where a customer can carry out transaction (mostly withdrawals of currency notes) but in full public view of the market place. This is rather interesting and the situation demands a public display of ones rather private (not necessarily secretive) exercise of doing financial transactions. Not surprising there is always a swiftness of action when people withdraw money from an ATM!

“Why can’t they have more ATM machines in the city? Multinational banks but pathetic service, I tell you. And what the hell is that guy doing. He has already withdrawn twice. Is he talking to the machine”…. An impatient customer in the ATM queue.

It is not surprising that waiting outside an ATM machine is not as comfortable as lets say waiting for our turn to buy vegetables or a boarding pass before a flight. ATM’s spatial typology are still reflective of this fundamental contradiction. It is not clear whether the ATM can be as public as a grain shop or as private as a public toilet! At one level the ATM’s have to be very accessible and visible, making it easier for people to use but at the same time they have to be guarded, controlled and monitored.

That is why perhaps there are two distinct parts of the ATM space; The facade which is formed by the back lit name of the bank written in a particular manner and the window from which one can view the ATM machine lying inside. This together becomes like a two dimensional graphics (visual brand) that announces the presence of the ATM. The second is essentially the conditioned room that keeps the machines, which tries and give some sense of the privacy to the customer and perhaps facilitate the security of the machine. Not to forget the security guard, who sits and practically does nothing!

See below the exploded view of the essential ATM typology


I wish if someone can tell me if a bored security guard always found along with an ATM is essentially an Indian phenomenon?

It is not surprising that the ATM on the wall on public street has practically failed to inspire any confidence and are rather rare to find these days. I do not think it is only the concern of security of the ATM machine. I guess the machines are more secured as embedded objects in a wall rather than being stand alone in a room. It seems it is has to do with discomfort associated with doing financial transaction in full public view and that is why the closed room.

The ATM in its present form has not really integrated with the other elements of the city as it essentially sits in the building typology that is meant for small shops. It does not exist in any particular combination of other shops. One of the reason for vitality in Indian city is the nature of combination of various agglomerated shopping and commerce.

For example Tea shop on street-balloon vendor - Chat wala - Cold drink and Ice-cream shop - Pan Shop - Florists - Newspaper Vendor - Archies Card Gallery - Stationary shop and so on!

ATM machine is surely the black sheep unless of course it can be viewed and designed as a utility urban furniture like a bus stand, parking meter, letter box, public toilets or a telephone booth. says:
Jan 05, 2011 06:57 AM
To answer the question: "I wish if someone can tell me if a bored security guard always found along with an ATM is essentially an Indian phenomenon?", based on my UK experience, I can say that an ATM security guard appears to be an Indian phenomenon, let alone them being bored! In the UK, ATMs are not manned. Also, as you rightly mention, they are mostly embedded on walls outside stores and shopping malls or shopping streets. It is really interesting that the space ATMs use in India is equivalent of a small shop. I wonder the loss in rent to the bank justifies a dedicated space. On the issue of security, I think most cities in the west are heavily CCTVed (a prime example is London) and therefore its openness presents less of a security threat. In the Indian context, unless that happens, a more secluded space with a security guard seems to reinforce the notion of security. Lastly, at least in the UK, the ubiquity of ATMs in not as prominent as in India both in terms of its density and visual identification. Perhaps a reason for this could be the facility of cash back offered by most stores accepting a debit card, wherein the amount to be withdrawn is added to your bill at the checkout till and you are handed the cash. This to me is the most secure form of cash withdrawal. Just goes on to say that a minor change in the banking policy can have a sizeable effect on the visual urban landscape.
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Prasad Krishna

Prasad Krishna previously worked in a newspaper and some reputed publications. He is MA in English, PGD in Journalism and LLB from the University of Delhi.