The parking garage at 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami by Herzog and de Meuron and the new Zaha Hadid garage proposal for Collins Park/South Beach have produced predictable references in the design blogs to a “paradigm shift” in the architecture of parking. Both designs are striking in their lightness, in the stress they place on the structural expression of the ramps and parking slabs usually hidden behind flat, undifferentiated façades, and in how they celebrate rather than hide parking as a dynamic presence in the streetscape, but I wonder whether schemes like these are useful in indicating a direction for parking design in denser urban environments outside of places like Miami or Santa Monica. Will they also work in cities New York or Chicago or Boston, or do they merely demonstrate the romantic attachment of designers to vernacular building types and uses, like Le Corbusier’s fondness for grain silos and Midwestern factories?
As the New York City Department of City Planning is engaged in a once-in-a-generation recasting of its zoning regulations for parking in the Manhattan Core, largely untouched since 1961, there is an opportunity to re-examine not only the operation and functional design of garages and parking lots but also to think about their architectural expression in the cityscape.
The parking lot and garage stock in older cities in harsher climates tends to resemble its 1940s forebears and little in the way of design modification to these facilities will help make them happier places to look at or inhabit. The opportunity to have a Diller Scofidio + Renfro or a Morphosis design an iconic New York parking structure will come, but in the meantime, there may be some modest strategies to improve parking design that we can propose.
LABEL IT. The graphic designer’s truism, cited by Michael Bierut in his Seventy Nine Short Essays on Design, “When in doubt make it big, if still in doubt make it red,” is at least in part applicable to parking design. Steve Powers “Love Letter to Brooklyn” has created a powerful presence for a previously dreadful parking structure at Macy’s on Hoyt Street in Downtown Brooklyn through the manipulation of gargantuan vernacular typography applied unsparingly to the Brutalist façade.
Ironic decoration sometimes helps.
MAKE IT FADE. These two examples from central Rome illustrate this principle:
Good design through backgrounding of service buildings like garages is an art that has been lost in many cities, where buildings either give up (see below), or try to stand out through loud and inappropriate design. (N.B.: These structures would probably need to be taller in New York.)
GIVE IT TO THE ROBOTS. Mechanical or automated parking has been the future of parking since the 1930s, but the actual means to use robotic parking efficiently had not yet been invented in 1961 when the City’s zoning for parking control was written, and the code still does not provide for the more efficient, sustainable, space-saving and streetscape-friendly mechanical parking garage. A couple have been built in the city (one on Baxter Street in Chinatown), but none have yet been constructed above-grade, where zoning floor area rules kick in, interior space is more valuable, and streetscape design becomes important. The City needs to encourage and even incentivize this new parking genre.
USE NATURAL SOFTENING. Given the trend towards biotechture, I’m surprised that we do not see many more vegetative walls around parking lots or on parking garages. It is easy and sustainable: walls and fences are natural supports for plants. A couple of Midtown examples stand out: the Edison lot on 44th Street off 8th Avenue is the first in a series of planted screens the company is planning (they just received an approval from the Landmarks Commission for a large one on a lot at Great Jones Street and Lafayette), and an older, discreet, perhaps even accidental, design on 40th Street across from Bryant Park at the GMC lot, which combines a stone base with a delicate iron fence acting as a trellis for the climbing ivy.
That parking design as architecture in the city has been neglected is indisputable. Efforts like Steve Powers’ graphic appliqué at the Macy’s in Brooklyn, and Edison’s on green screening at their lots in Manhattan, point the way to recovering some small portion of the design energy that has been absent from parking design generally.
Douglas Woodward is a planner and urban designer.