Sacking the Decks: How Parking Garages Got Ugly

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Parking garage connoisseur Shannon Sanders McDonald warms to her subject with a peculiar enthusiasm. Displaying the messianic zeal of someone who champions lost languages, forgotten old-model cars, or bugs, snakes and other dangerous animals, she laughs a little too early and a little too long at her own jokes. She assumes knowledge in her audience when she shouldn't, and provides it when she needn't. Speaking last week at the Library of Congress, McDonald talked about hidden beauty in details few others can see. She also finds beauty where there isn't any, the perennial danger of being too close to your subject.

McDonald, an architect who recently published "The Parking Garage: Design and Evolution of a Modern Urban Form," ran through a fascinating, lunch-hour slide show Tuesday at breakneck speed. Beginning with glimpses of dead horses, trash and muck on the streets of New York circa 1900, she said the automobile was originally perceived as an environmental boon. Cars were cleaner, and given the occasional epidemic that killed off horses in droves, they were perceived to be potentially more reliable (once the engineering glitches were worked out).

The first garages were sometimes converted stables, sometimes other large buildings adapted for new use and sometimes built for the purpose (by auto clubs that worked to defend drivers against the entrenched horse-and-buggy partisans). Early automobiles were not all-weather vehicles -- engines could freeze and exposed leather seats needed special care -- so early garages were heated and protected from the elements. They were, in general, much better integrated into the urban fabric than garages built decades later..

Early in the history of the garage, two philosophical currents emerge. Is the car a machine, to be stored as efficiently as possible? Or is it an extension of our quintessentially American mobility, which often is considered to be almost the same thing as freedom itself? From this split emerged two very different kinds of garages.

The mechanized garage was efficient at housing machines. Drive in, hand the car over to an attendant, and a system of elevators and turntables moved the car to its place. But that lacked the freedom of the other model, the ramp garage, which eventually led to the self-park garage that we are all but addicted to today. You drive in, you drive out, you stay as long as you want.

The architecture of the old mechanized garages was generally superior -- more beautiful, exuberant and sensitive -- to that of the ramp garages that replaced them. Before the advent of massive self-park facilities, garages were generally in better proportion to the buildings around them, with floor and roof lines often indistinguishable from office towers or residential buildings. Mechanized garages could be built more vertical, and cars could be stacked higher than self-parkers are willing to go. (After about four circumnavigations of a garage ramp loop, you're bored, you're dizzy and you're utterly disoriented.)

But the freedom, or perceived freedom, of the ramp system eventually won out. As cars became emotionally fused with the very identity of most Americans, turning the car over to an attendant, or having to wait for it to appear at the end of the day, became a nuisance.

And so some of the most fascinating pages of McDonald's book are devoted to the evolution of ever more sophisticated ramp systems. The basic problem with the ramp is that it wastes space. If built too short, it is too steep for most cars; if built too long, you lose room for parking.

The patented D'Humy ramp system was basically two conjoined garages with staggered floors and shorter ramps, which wasted less space. In 1924, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a strange, spiraling tower for Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland (a destination attraction for motoring day-trippers) that included parking on some of its ramps. It was never built (and other architects, including Louis Kahn, were making similar experiments), but eventually Wright's idea -- the ramp could be the actual floor on which you park -- became standard practice.

"I think the Guggenheim occurred because Frank Lloyd Wright never got to build his garage," said McDonald, referring to Wright's landmark museum in New York, which is essentially a long, spiraling walkway with room to park art on the sides. Her remark was tossed off as a joke, but it may be a brilliant insight.

The problem with ramp garages, whether it's the D'Humy system, or a spiral, or a stack of canted floors, is that they are bewildering. You never quite know your relationship to the ground, or to the building that you're about to enter. Your car is always a half-floor above or below you, no matter how carefully you plot your return.

Ramps may be an efficient way to store cars, but they sever an age-old architectural connection between you, the building and the earth you drove in on. And garages, in general, give you no sense of entry to a building, or a city. The grand galleries of old rail stations provided a spiritual sense of transition to the city. The garage is always a nuisance, with no sense of drama, or flow, or grandeur.

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