Chicago Self-Park

Like many places supporting a large daily influx of cars, Chicago has made way for a series of gaps in its fabric. Its downtown is riddled with self-park garages — structures often occupying half a city block or more, towering far above street level, and yet conspicuous in nothing so much as their emptiness and banality. To be sure, Chicago’s demand for parking structures has inspired designs by some distinguished architects. Bertrand Goldberg’s Jetson-style spiral decks at the base of his Marina City towers are the most startling part of those iconic buildings. Stanley Tigerman’s car-grill façade enlivens the garage at 60 E. Lake Street (its hood ornament is visible in my Lake & Wabash #1, 2006). But my interest lies more in the generic garages that proliferate in Chicago and exploring what they are good for photographically.

Simon Henley, in his The Architecture of Parking (just reviewed here by Ian Baldwin), notes that “texts about ramped parking structures tend [to] overlook the remarkable sculptural effect of these movement systems.” Henley goes on to describe how the Russian Constructivist Konstantin S. Melnikov, a pioneer of parking design in the 1920s, anticipated the potential pleasure that parking ramps might hold for the motorist: “it is possible to imagine that Melnikov’s motorist would experience ‘flow’ and become totally absorbed by the ride.” The closest we probably come to fulfilling Melnikov’s hopes is our absorption in the movie and television chase scenes regularly played out inside public garages (two recent Batman movies made alarming use of the spiral ramp at Randolph and Wells, which is depicted twice in this slide show of my images.) It’s safe to suppose that drivers today don’t routinely find pleasure in their travels up and down garage ramps. Yet my premise in this series of photographs is that the walk from car to elevator, or a visit to the garage’s upper deck, sometimes affords an unexpected gift.

The long, wide apertures typical of most large self-parking garages give the viewer inside a particular way of framing the cityscape beyond. In Chicago, this architecture of the horizon (to paraphrase Henley) has a singular effect, for it mirrors what we might call Chicago’s native geometry — the sweep of the prairie, the horizontal thrust of Prairie School architecture, and the proportions of Chicago’s early steel-frame buildings. The top level of most self-park garages in downtown Chicago is accessible by elevator to any pedestrian with a few minutes to spare. It is here, with a high vantage on the city, and with the garage’s trappings abruptly reduced to a different scale, that the emptiness of garage space turns from alienating to exhilarating.

Editors' Note

Selections from this body of work were exhibited in 2009 at Catherine Edelman Gallery and DoVA Temporary in Chicago, and are included in the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s Midwest Photographer’s Project.

Alan Thomas, “Chicago Self-Park,” Places Journal, February 2010. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • Mgerwing

    02.06.2010 at 13:04

    I think the influence of these structures on architects for other typologies, specifically the library ( Koolhaas' Seattle, Paris university) is quite interesting. This movement through space, at this scale, was never conceived of before the advent of both the automobile and zoning department parking requirements.