Architecture: Philip Kennicott on 'House of Cars' and parking's place in culture

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Let's look at the parking data points. Last month the National Building Museum opened an exhibition devoted entirely to the subject of parking, its architecture and social history, from the highs and lows of parking structure design to historical artifacts -- a 1930s guidebook listing parking lots open to African Americans -- that prove no matter what odd thread you tug in the fabric of Americana, you often get the same, dispiriting story. The exhibition coincided with a mostly overlooked convention, the Parking Show of Shows hosted by the National Parking Association, which held its annual meeting at National Harbor a few weeks ago. Which came only a few days after The Washington Post reported on a scandalously high-priced and underutilized parking garage built with public funds in Columbia Heights.

Three parking narratives, with three very different morals. The Building Museum's fascinating and comprehensive "House of Cars" exhibition takes parking for granted, and from that assumption tries to cover the subject dispassionately. It proves that parking structures needn't be ugly, that they were once more routinely beautiful and integrated into the urban fabric, and that even today they can be architecturally daring if real architects are allowed to explore the poetry of the structure. The Parking Show of Shows -- an exhibition for parking professionals that featured the cutting edge of parking technology and design -- didn't just take parking for granted as a necessity, it loved everything about parking, from the latest designs for sustainable lighting fixtures to a new age of robotic parking valets that may revolutionize the way we store our cars.

But it was the odd story of a parking structure in Columbia Heights, built by the city with $40 million of taxpayers' money, that may be the most pertinent data point in the future of parking. Here was a classic case of how good intentions can get fouled up with old-fashioned civic extortion. The retailer Target demanded the garage as a condition of moving to the city. The city built it. But something strange happened along the way: The expected hordes of drivers didn't materialize. They came by foot, by Metro, but not in cars, at least not in the numbers projected, and now the lot is losing money, costing the city some $100,000 per month.

Stories like this, popping up around the country, may portend a seismic shift in how we think about parking.

A colorful history

But first, the history. Almost every type of modern structure, from prisons to hospitals to airports, has been anatomized by someone, and parking structures are no exception. In January 2008, author and historian Shannon Sanders McDonald visited the Library of Congress to lecture about her book "The Parking Garage: Design and Evolution of a Modern Urban Form." McDonald was an adviser to the National Building Museum exhibition (which received funding from the NPA), and the spirit of her book pervades much of the current show. Parking, they both demonstrate, is far more interesting than anyone ever thought.

Early cars were remarkably sensitive little beasts, more hygienic than horses (which left manure in the streets, and sometimes their mortal carcass, too), but also more sensitive to the elements than today's cars. With leather seats, open tops and finicky engines, cars needed protection from cold and rain, and thus early parking garages tended to look like other buildings where we store things. They were often masonry structures, sometimes with windows, built to a scale in line with local neighborhoods. Look at an early garage, and it's not necessarily clear that it's a garage.

Which is to say, early garages weren't as hideously ugly as the famous Cage Garage -- built in 1933 in Boston -- which appears in McDonald's book and the National Building Museum exhibition. As cars grew up, as gasoline became an all-weather commodity and cars became comfortable cocoons with sturdy metal shells, garages no longer needed to be impervious to weather. The Cage Garage was essentially the garage we are all so sadly familiar with today: a forbidding stack of open decks, a perfect example of form following function and an even better example of why form shouldn't always follow function. It was torn down in 1985, but the damage was done. A basic tolerance for ugly parking structures, a particularly soul-killing type of architecture that would blight whole neighborhoods and rend the urban fabric of so many once-walkable downtowns, had entered the American system.

Because parking, after all, was a necessity.

Or perhaps it was a right, a fundamental freedom that came hand in hand with the freedom to drive, to be mobile, to push out from the gritty city farther and farther into the once-green hinterlands. Without parking, there could be no driving. And that sense of parking as a fundamental right expressed itself in the self-park garage, most of them just as ugly as the Cage Garage. But self-parking also meant absolute freedom to come and go, to keep one's own schedule. And avoid any of the social interaction that you might have had waiting for your car.

As self-parking became the parking ideal -- you can see how aesthetically appealing it was in historic videos which show cars ascending gentle ramps with almost voluptuous ease -- parking garages were redesigned with safer and more negotiable ramps. But self-park came at a cost: You couldn't fit as many cars in. Which meant that garages got bigger and more forbidding in their appearance.

The exhibition deals with this issue clinically, exploring the innovations in ramp systems and latter-day efforts to hide and cloak the garage with a more genial face. But there was no hiding the damage these buildings were doing. A 1967 photograph from Anchorage shows a gigantic parking structure dwarfing everything around it, as if the city itself is an afterthought.

There was an era, says Sarah Leavitt, curator of the National Building Museum show, when cities took pride in these structures. But that pride, based on the sense that a modern city couldn't progress without adequate parking, hid a darker indifference to the historical fabric of the city. The exhibition also includes before-and-after shots of a block of F Street NW, showing the loss of two historic buildings to a hideous parking garage built next to the Hotel Washington. It also includes an image of one of the most notorious parking garages in the world, the Michigan Theater in Detroit, made by slamming concrete decks into the shell of a classic and beautifully ornamented movie house. To this day, people still park there surrounded by the ghostly architectural shadow of a building once meant to please and delight.

Dealing with a nightmare

The self-park lot didn't have to be ugly. Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect, managed to design a not-hideous garage for the Milwaukee Art Museum; the parking structure expresses its form both honestly and with graceful and appealing repetitions of gentle, rounded-V-shape supports. But for all the beautiful images of parking done well, it's the nightmare images that haunt one in this exhibition. Some of the most fascinating material is found in a room devoted to parking as seen in contemporary art and popular culture. In film, we find a recurrent trope: the parking lot as site of social discord, violence and anomie. In the 1961 film version of "West Side Story," the boys rumble in a parking lot. In 1976's "All the President's Men," Deep Throat unfolds his unbelievably big conspiracy in a subterranean, and empty, parking lot.

The emptiness of parking lots haunts the imagination of several contemporary artists, including Carsten Meier, whose large-format photograph of a vacant top deck of a garage in Columbus, Ohio, makes the space feel post-apocalyptic. The same whistling emptiness can be felt in a video by Peter Rose, and in a sculpture by Rita McBride, which reproduces the bracingly spare lines of a standard, open-deck garage in nickel silver. But without cars. Two ideas emerge from this room: that parking has always been the dark side of the driving dream, and that the geometric ugliness of so many garages is a byproduct of architects who were, in fact, aesthetically drawn to the plain, simple planes and angles of the form. Architects often have strange ideas.

None of this metaphysical angst was on display at the Parking Show of Shows. At one booth, J.A. Uniforms was hawking handsome five-button red vests with epaulets, modern-day livery for the old-fashioned valet. Across the room, Woody Nash of Boomerang Systems was promoting the "world's only free-roaming" robot valet. It's a fascinating system that harks back to the days of the old automated garage. By retrofitting existing garages with sensors, crawling robots can slide under your vehicle, lift it and carry it to a parking spot without opening the driver's door.

"They can move laterally and spin on a dime," Nash said. "And they never take coins out of the coin holder."

But the future isn't all bright for the National Parking Association. Away from the exhibition hall, with its free-flowing red wine and mini-burgers, participants gathered to hear lawyer and lobbyist Vincent Petraro describe how he helped keep at bay a New York proposal to institute "congestion pricing" in the gridlocked south end of Manhattan. This new user fee would charge drivers entering the zone from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Proponents hope it will clear up the streets, clean up the air and generate revenue. Petraro worries that it will hurt business. He cites London, which instituted a similar plan in 2003.

"Yeah it worked, if you want to create a ghost town," Petraro says of a city that at last check was anything but a ghost town.

Congestion pricing, says Prof. Donald Shoup of UCLA, could hurt the bottom line for parking lot owners. The power of that bottom line was obvious throughout the Parking Show of Shows, where even bright signs -- environmentally sustainable lighting and other improvements to design -- were predicated on their cost savings. But Shoup, who studies the economics of parking, is interested in a different, more civic-oriented bottom line. He argues that parking is yet one more element of the basic American infrastructure that hasn't been subjected to the basic rules of the market. Cities all too often under-price their parking meters, which explains why drivers tie up traffic cruising for a cheap space. And for decades cities have required developers to include parking as part of new construction, which hides the real cost -- economic and environmental -- of parking.

Which brings us to Columbia Heights, and yet another parking boondoggle. But this may also be the future of parking: Less is more. Most of the larger discussion of parking, including the dialogue at the National Parking Association and to a somewhat disturbing extent in the National Building Museum exhibition, is predicated on the idea that parking is a necessity. That it can be improved, but not eliminated. Even the act of studying parking as an evolving architectural form all too often seems to legitimize that form. But the emptiness of that lot in Columbia Heights, and the nightmare images on display at the "House of Cars" show, suggest that we may not be nearly as addicted to parking as we once believed.

There may, in fact, be life after parking, especially if cities begin to treat it more like smoking -- a public nuisance to be pushed to the limits of the urban infrastructure -- than a public right, to be accommodated no matter what the cost. And those haunting images of empty lots and vacant parking decks? Perhaps they were fantasies, not nightmares, portents of a better, more rational, healthier and greener world.

One can dream.

House of Cars Through July 11 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Call 202-272-2448 or visit http://www.nbm.org.

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