Where you park doesn't have to be scary

(Roger K. Lewis For The Washington Post)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween is when many children, willing to risk being scared, bravely venture into a makeshift haunted house at a neighborhood elementary school. All year round, grownups occasionally venture into another kind of potentially scary house: a shadowy parking garage.

"House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage," a new exhibition at the National Building Museum, presents the history and possible future of parking architecture. It also includes a video display showing clips from dozens of popular movies and TV series with memorable action scenes set in dark, mysterious parking garages.

For decades, Hollywood has filmed countless chases, assaults, shootouts, explosions and clandestine meetings in ominous parking garages. Garage rooftops are a favorite cinematic venue for climactic encounters or for tossing bad guys over parapets. Recall the supporting roles played by garages in "All the President's Men," "Magnum Force," "Robocop," "The Terminator," "The Bourne Identity," "The French Connection" and "State of Play."

Think of all the parking garages you have visited where lighting is dim, visibility is constrained, way-finding signage is obscure and orientation is elusive. No wonder garages can feel unsafe, threatening and even spooky.

In addition to their unpleasant visual ambience, some garages challenge your automotive skills. Driving aisles and parking spaces can be too narrow and turning radiuses too tight. Especially troublesome are structural columns whose size and position can make maneuvering difficult, impede door opening, obstruct visibility, and occasionally produce scrapes and dents on the side of your car.

These challenges are most severe in basement garages whose layout is dictated by the geometry of the floor plan and the structural column pattern of the building above. On small urban lots, basement parking is even tougher because the parking layout must synchronize not only with the structural column grid, but also with the stairs, elevators, ductwork and plumbing. The configuration of free-standing, above-grade parking garages, most built in suburban locations or on relatively large urban sites, is less constrained. Long-span steel and concrete structural systems can eliminate the need for those pesky columns between parking spaces. Still, overall garage form is limited by the shape of the site and determined by dimensional standards for parking spaces, driving aisles, ramps and vertical clearances.

As the National Building Museum exhibition shows, parking garages have been the Rodney Dangerfield of architecture, getting little or no aesthetic respect. Whether constructed below or above ground, parking garages are generally built to be as efficient, inexpensive and unobtrusive as possible. Few parking garages ever receive design awards.

This is understandable. In urban and suburban areas, building owners, tenants and customers expect parking. County and municipal zoning codes often require minimum amounts of on-site parking. Yet with limited budgets, developers have little motivation to spend more than is absolutely necessary to comply with codes and satisfy market needs. Why embellish a parking garage? So what if a garage looks ugly or a bit scary?

But "House of Cars" demonstrates that parking garages do not have to be ugly or scary. Indeed, some architects and their clients have aspired to make attractive, artfully designed garages.

Publicly visible, multi-level garages, essentially stacks of horizontal or sloped concrete plates, entail three basic design issues: how to form the structural skeleton, how to clad the exterior and how to relate the garage to its context. At the National Building Museum, you will see how architects have dealt with these issues while you also learn about the 100-year evolution of parking garage architecture.

Rectilinear garage structures predominate, but you will see garages with expressively curvilinear geometry. There are tall garages, very long garages, tiny garages, and garages with elevators moving cars vertically and horizontally.

Imaginative designers have created garage facades with a variety of materials, including vegetation, and have produced rich surface patterns using multiple colors and decorative lighting to celebrate garage presence day and night.

In the name of expressive honesty, some designers purposely reveal the function of a parking garage by leaving the perimeter wide open so that cars are fully visible. They may admire the visual rhythm, shape, texture and metallic character of parked vehicles. Also, the openness aids natural ventilation, allows more daylight and enhances safety.

Other architects seek to camouflage or completely hide cars with semi-transparent or opaque, porous screening elements. And occasionally, garages are completely camouflaged with applied facades, making them look like something else -- an office, hotel or apartment building.

No matter how well composed, long and lifeless parking garage walls next to sidewalks deaden urban streetscapes. This is avoided in two ways. On a sufficiently large block, a garage can sit inside the block, surrounded by street-fronting buildings. Or street-fronting retail and commercial space can occupy the garage perimeter at the sidewalk level.

No single design approach fits all parking garage circumstances, which depend on site context, land use and density, climate, and, of course, budgets. But every approach to garage design should share a common goal: to build a parking structure that is attractive, safe and never scary.

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

© 2009 The Washington Post Company