Aesthetics Need Not Take a Back Seat in Public Garage Design

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 6, 2007

Debate about parking for the Washington Nationals' baseball stadium has focused on competing alternatives for locating and configuring parking structures.

Many fear that free-standing, multi-story garages will deprive the city of retail and entertainment activity, and thus streetscape vitality, next to the stadium.

But we have heard little about the aesthetic potential inherent in garage architecture. People assume that parking garages inevitably are large-scale eyesores. Indeed, garages are rarely attractive or visually interesting. Few architects hunger for the opportunity to design a parking garage.

Yet this assumption deserves to be challenged.

Although garages are difficult to design well and typically are constructed with the smallest possible budget, they do not have to be ugly. Designers also can do a better job of humanizing the interiors of garages, whether above or below grade.

While in Rostock, Germany, this summer, I saw a five-story parking garage that belies the presumption of ugliness. The garage's rectilinear steel frame, painted gray, and concrete floor slabs and ramps are quite conventional. But its pragmatically composed skeleton is veiled by a beautifully detailed outer layer of steel mullions, metal mesh and glass.

The garage's transparent pattern of layered horizontals and verticals produces a dynamic plaid, like a Mondrian painting, that changes as one drives or walks by. The imagery is further enriched by the colorful variety of automobiles parked behind the screens.

Atop the garage is a striking canopy that looks like the outstretched wings of a giant prehistoric bird. Along the garage centerline, a row of steel masts supports cables and cantilevered, tapered steel struts with fabric stretched between them. The visually lighter-than-air canopy not only shelters cars parked on the roof, but also gives the garage a unique profile, ensuring that, despite its mundane function, it will serve as a memorable landmark.

Close to home, we see a different kind of approach in Reagan National Airport's parking garages, designed by Hartman-Cox. Built-in planters filled with evergreens, plus well-detailed concrete parapets, yield handsome facades and effective screens along lengthy parking deck perimeters.

By contrast, new garages at Dulles International Airport are relatively featureless, aesthetically neutral but very large and fully visible concrete structures. In architectural deference to Eero Saarinen's extraordinary main terminal building, they were designed to be as plain as possible.

Options for parking structures are few: Garages can be underground and thus completely invisible, aboveground but camouflaged or hidden, or aboveground and readily seen.

If financially and technically feasible, underground parking is preferred because it puts cars out of sight and in real estate useful only for windowless storage. But because of cost, underground parking is primarily found in denser parts of cities, below buildings or civic plazas and parks.

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