The history of American development in the 20th century is a history of the car.
In the first half of the century, America converted itself from a society that moved on streetcars, trains and horse-wagons into one that moved in buses, cars and trucks. As national affluence and mass motorization nested snugly into each other’s legends, the purr of the internal-combustion engine became an urgent growl to remake town and country as pliant hosts of the automobile. It was heeded. One-third of the typical American city is asphalt. In the second half of the century, we dealt with the consequences, and muddle through them still. The auto-urban relationship — fumbling, overheated, unsatisfying for both parties — never stands still long enough to be rationally inspected. But there is one place where city and car merge into stasis: the parking garage.
For simply presenting this long-overdue look at a building type that makes the modern city possible, the National Building Museum’s House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage, (on view through July 11) deserves much credit. It deserves more for being doggedly focused and well-organized, if somewhat limited in scope.
The exhibit’s first sections look at the emergence of car culture in the early 20th century, and here the skills of the curatorial team, ably led by Sarah Leavitt, are most evident. Packing an extraordinary amount of archival finds into the relatively small exhibition, it details a clear timeline in which cars forged the path later followed by computers: from high-tech novelty to household appliance in the space of two decades. By the onset of the Great Depression, 80 percent of American families owned one.
Well before suburbia and the automobile became indivisible, the car was an urban phenomenon whose sudden appearance caused havoc with downtown streets and traffic. The spatial problem became so acute that following a 1920 streetcar strike, Los Angeles banned daytime curbside parking downtown (business owners and drivers rose up in anger; the ban was shortly repealed). While an off-street place to park appealed to city fathers, it was also a perfect solution for drivers, who needed an indoor facility to store and service the relatively fragile machines. Early garages doubled, logically, as repair shops and filling stations. They also played a civic role in appearance, their designers cladding them with glazed terra-cotta facades and operable windows.
The interiors of these structures offered innovations such as reinforced concrete ramps and car-sized elevators, with tight clearances reflecting the fact that all parking was done by attendants. One of the exhibit’s unearthed gems is a photo of a Wheeling, West Virginia, garage in ’30s showing the half-dozen car jockeys outfitted in the military style of the era, complete with polished boots, riding breeches, and Sam Browne belts. Parking your own car, like pumping your own gas, would not become common until the 1970s.
What’s striking about the photographs of garages from the golden age of the late 1920s is how many were able to attain the scale and refinement of contemporary office buildings. Equally pleasing, in their heyday, were Bauhaus-inspired garages like Robert Law Weed’s 1948 split-level deck in Miami, expressing the poetics of the spare concrete frame. A floor-to-ceiling nighttime photograph of George Applegarth’s Bon Marche garage, opened in 1960 in Seattle and recently defaced by a new façade, speaks to the shared fluidity of concrete and cars.
The seeming takeover of everyday life and public space by automobiles in the 60s and 70s spawned defensive efforts to remove the car from the city (Ulrich Franzen’s Queens Sector) or push it deep into the urban fabric (Louis Kahn’s plan for cylindrical garages within circular towers). That battle having been lost, we’re left with guerilla cheek like Moskow Linn’s pez-dispenser proposal for ZipCars.
You can’t help but think despairingly of how economics hijacks design in today’s low, flat, and vast garages, whose small-minded gestures at urban participation like street-level retail or pseudo-historic facades are clumsy attempts to fool all the people all the time. On the inside, the alienating emptiness of the garage is a meme for the uneasy banality of modern life, as compellingly suggested by Peter Rose’s documentary voyage through an empty garage. An opposing technique, the garage as sexed-up object, is on view as well: Eric Owen Moss’s edgy millennial blob in Culver City is sandwiched between two projects down the freeway in Santa Monica, Frank Gehry’s 1980 Santa Monica Place and the Civic Center Garage by Moore Ruble Yudell, which opened in 2007 as the first LEED-certified parking structure.
The show only half-bats an eyelash at the notion of a “green” parking garage, and even shows a model of another, a head-scratching project — Leven Betts’s Filter Park Garage in Chicago — that uses a giant slab across the JFK expressway in Chicago to park 1,000 cars while somehow promising to clean the air. It does, to its credit, suggest the silliness of New Urbanist developments heavily reliant on parking and mentions, obliquely, the damage wrought by motor infrastructure in cities. One of the show’s most revealing photographs is an aerial shot of a project under construction in Atlanta, showing the 7,000-space substructure that will support the “transit-friendly” community above.
But it also has some passages (“many think parking structures can also promote downtown travel, indirectly protecting historic districts that otherwise could be seen as inaccessible”) that will have visitors wondering if the lead sponsor National Parking Association had some hand in the show’s content. For the record, it didn’t.
One doesn’t go to national museums expecting cultural assumptions to quake, but this museum exists to promote engagement with the built environment, and staring out a car window is only one, highly superficial, form of engagement. At a moment when environmental awareness, urban consciousness and design sensibility seem to be enjoying a rebirth in this country, the exhibit wants for tougher questions.
For example, does it make sense to celebrate garages as iconic when the traffic they serve has played such a large role in cheapening the built realm? Is the waste inherent in this “infrastructure of empty space” sustainable? Can a garage be good because it is not that eyesore so common in American downtowns, the asphalt surface lot?
Unfortunately, the high-design garages highlighted by the show are an infinitesimal percentage of the stock. Precast parking decks can now be “designed” by software and erected in a couple months, but will have a decades-long effect on the cityscape. After so much bitter urban-renewal experience, why do dour, overscaled parking blocks still regularly victimize cityscapes?
There may be some relief on the horizon in the form of new technologies enabling smaller, automated garages. Lifts for shunting vehicles up, down, back and forth were first deployed in the 1950s (the exhibit plays period newsreels enthusing over systems with names like Park-O-Mat and Pigeon Hole) but the dominance of self-parking ramped garages moved further advancements abroad. The urban real estate boom may bring them back: a 408-car automated garage, which would be the densest in the country, is planned for a historic neighborhood in Baltimore.
Until mechanical sophistication makes it economically viable to tuck garages inside, under, and behind more buildings, however, we are stuck with the garage as a (typically unwilling) work of architecture. There is enough compelling material on display here to argue that even if the program of car parking is banal, its design should not be.
The Architecture of Parking
For an architectural call to arms in garage design, look no further than Simon Henley’s superb study, which appeared in paperback earlier this year. Henley, an architect with his own firm in England, tells much of the same story as House of Cars, but takes advantage of his format to deepen his inquiry into the architectural soul of the garage and expand his research beyond the US to Western Europe and the UK.
The Architecture of Parking [Thames & Hudson, 2007] is a labor of love. Henley seems to verge on what the British would call an anorak for garages; he leads bicycle tours of London car parks and seeks out foreign ones when he travels. Yet it’s hard to imagine a book of this scope being as delightful as it is without this dedication. Over 250 pages, Henley discusses over 50 garages in detail with text, excellent photographs and architectural drawings. This forces the complaint that the book’s lack of an index limits its value as a reference.
Another complaint might be that the book swims a bit too happily in its own tank. While I’ve faulted House of Cars for not taking a hard enough look at parking’s deleterious effects, at least the exhibition raises some questions. Henley’s intense focus is on the garage as architecture. He coolly identifies our “addiction,” and like a bartender serving a drunk, sets up the next round.
But if there’s a book to entice one on a morally ambiguous design bender, this is it.
Henley’s introductory essays laying out the programmatic and aesthetic evolution of the garage are deeply knowledgeable and finely written. The featured garages are grouped into four sections — Matter (concrete), Light, Elevation, and Obliquity (geometry and ramping) — defining the essential “garageness” of parking architecture.
The examples span time and Europe, from Venice’s skylit, spiral-ramped Autorimessa Comunale of 1931 to OMA’s 2004 Souterrain in The Hague, a potentially paradigm-shifting project combining a horizontal garage with transit stations underground. Henley gives a fair and full accounting of UK and US brutalist projects from the 1960s, such as Portsmouth, England’s now-demolished Tricorn Centre, and New Haven’s Temple Street Garage by Paul Rudolph.
Some wonderful examples come from Germany. The 1953 Parkhaus Haniel in Dusseldorf juxtaposes poured-concrete butterfly columns with a gauzy glass skin (it evokes strongly Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Airport, designed five years later). Three more recent garages have achieved a rich surface hapticity by wrapping themselves in bamboo, larch, and pine.
The Architecture of Parking has enough compelling images and drawings that it could have easily denigrated into a visually driven coffee-table book. Thankfully, Simon Henley’s love for an under-loved subject has given us a valuable work of scholarship and an inspiring sourcebook for designers. It is one of my favorite architecture books of recent years.