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.

If a site is large enough, the next best thing is a less costly above-grade but concealed parking garage. Such parking garages can be embedded within city blocks and surrounded by street-fronting buildings or enveloped by a wrapper of shops, offices, apartments or hotel rooms.

Flanked by preserved historic buildings in downtown Annapolis, the steel-framed city parking garage, designed by Paul Spreiregen, is a good example of a garage inside a city block and surrounded by buildings. At the Carlyle development in Alexandria, the new Patent and Trademark Office parking garages, designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, are hidden behind a thin layer of offices. That exemplifies the second strategy for hiding a garage. Because of security concerns, the PTO strategy is the exception at Carlyle, where all other parking garages are underground, as mandated by Carlyle design guidelines.

Most jurisdictions don't have design requirements that address basic functional necessities within parking garages: lighting, orientation and directional signs for pedestrians and vehicles, and dimensions of driving aisles and parking spaces.

Far too many parking garages are shadowy places that not only limit vision but also compromise safety. Given that energy-efficient fluorescent fixtures are inexpensive, there is no reason for parking garages not to be well-lighted.

After parking and locking your car in an underground garage, how often have you been uncertain about where to walk to find the stairway or elevator up to the lobby or street? Then, returning later to the garage -- perhaps walking cautiously down a ramp -- and backing out of your parking space, have you ever been unsure about which way to drive to reach the exit? Most parking garage signage is woefully inadequate.

Finally, who hasn't cursed the designers and builders of garages where the layout of aisles, structural columns and parking spaces seriously tests dimensional judgment, driving skills and the ability to slither out of the seat with the car door open only a few inches? Be thankful for power steering and comprehensive automobile damage insurance.

Even though they may be only "temporary," perhaps the new parking garages next to the baseball stadium will get no less design attention, inside and out, than the stadium itself. At least that would help alleviate the disappointment of an inactive streetscape, not to mention making garage navigation easier for baseball patrons.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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