Garages can be beautiful

Figure-12.jpg

Staunton Parking Garage, in Staunton, Va. (Photo by Calder Loth)

Here is the column I wrote for the Providence Journal about the design of parking garages, as promised in “Garage design in Providence.” Seeing the latest proposed garage design, a friend thought at first that the headline was “Garbage design in Providence.” Understandable.

In September of 2013 I wrote a column based largely on garages in Richmond, Va., where city officials seem to understand that a garage need not be a place people must try to ignore. A garage can be made to fit into the setting of a city. Since most municipal officials seem unable to understand that every building can and should be made to fit into the city, getting them to think sensibly about garage design is to attempt a high hurdle.

As yesterday’s post suggests, that is especially true in Providence, which is odd because, as one of the nation’s most beautiful cities, Providence has examples of beauty that city officials have to walk by every day. They must walk by with their eyes closed. Why more of them don’t get hit by cars (or, very popular these days, buses) I have no idea.

Now they will have to walk by the new garage built by Johnson & Wales University in downtown Providence, which at least tries to fit into its cityscape, and comes close to real success. Bravo to JWU!

Below is my old column on garage design. Many of the garages outside of Rhode Island cited below may be seen in the linked essay by Calder Loth, on the Classicist website of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, from which I got most of my information for the column.

***

Parking decoration is vital for cities
September 5, 2013

The question of what a parking deck or parking garage (both are the same) should look like is easily answered, notwithstanding that almost all cities answer the question incorrectly.

It should look like a building that belongs in a city. That’s what it is and that’s what it should look like, not a giant set of concrete shelves.

In downtown Providence, only the Arcade Garage, across Weybosset Street from the Arcade, even tried to get it right. Its brick façade, bullnosed columns and tower of arched apertures appear to blush at the insipidity of its attempt. Other local garages treat this important civic function as if form were a sort of curse.

Give me acres of asphalt surface parking lots instead; at least they offer the prospect of something better down the road.

An exception to the urban miasma of “structured parking” in most cities is Richmond, Va., which must qualify as the mecca of parking decks. In his Aug. 27, 2013, essay for the Classicist Blog of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, where he is an adviser, Calder Loth describes parking decks that get it right, most of which seem to inhabit the Old Dominion.

As senior architectural historian [ret.] at Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources – the state’s equivalent of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission – Loth has been observing architecture for decades. His essay on parking decks should be required reading for all planning officials.

“Regrettably,” he writes, “many of the decks of recent decades are as visually stifling as the surface lots. These vapid works of naked engineering are little more than concrete shelving to store our vehicles, blaring the fatuous rationale that form follows function.”

Loth begins with Richmond’s Sixth Street Garage, an Art Deco deck designed by Lee, Smith & Van der Voort and built in 1927, a “pioneering demonstration that a parking deck can be a work of architecture.” It has two towers emblazoned with winged automobiles and a cornice of sculpted wheels. Between its piers are mullions that suggest office windows.

Although you can easily tell it is a parking deck, it does not boast of its parking deckness, and that is its strength. But perhaps I give it too much credit. In 1927, the ugliness we take for granted (and not just in parking decks) was not mandatory. Trying to fit even a garage into the urban fabric was not yet verboten. By 1947, those halcyon days were gone.

Loth gives too much credit, I think, to a parking deck in New Haven, Conn., designed by Paul Rudolph in the so-called Brutalist style. Most garages, wrote Rudolph, “are just office structures with the glass left out,” adding that he wanted there to be “no doubt that this is a parking garage.”

He succeeded. Alas. Yet Loth refers its swoopy Brutalism as a “masterpiece of concrete formwork.” Maybe it is a masterpiece of concrete formwork, but it is not a masterpiece of a parking garage.

Loth takes his readers to a few other states to praise garages of recent vintage in Santa Fe, N.M., Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., but he returns to Virginia to describe three splendid parking decks: that of St. James-Beth Ahabah, a work of forthright classicism in downtown Richmond built jointly by two houses of worship; a deck appended in the 1980s to an 1893 Planters National Bank, which picks up deftly on its Romanesque Revival style; and a deck at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, with a Tuscan colonnade that makes learned reference to the original campus by Thomas Jefferson.

Of this Loth quips, “Some might ask why a parking deck should be thusly dressed up. The answer might be ‘Why shouldn’t it?’ ”

I have left myself little room to discuss what he calls “the grandest parking deck in this survey,” in Staunton, Va., which opened in 2000, modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in ancient Rome – on which New York’s Pennsylvania Station itself, built in 1910, was modeled. “We might ask,” Loth asks again, “what is the most welcome sight for a visitor entering a strange city. The answer, of course, is a place to park, so why not treat it with fanfare.”

Why not indeed? The plain and simple answer to which most planning officials and parking magnates are oblivious is obvious to those in Richmond. The question remains why. Calder Loth is too diplomatic to answer directly. Yes, their brains are stuck in park, but why?

A garage being built in Providence by Johnson & Wales University may show promise. It is not complete. When it is, I hope it will grace a future Calder Loth parking-deck survey. [That garage is pictured below.]

Copyright © 2013. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Recent Johnson & Wales parking garage in downtown Providence. It is not the one straight ahead but to the left of the street. (Photo by David Brussat)

 

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Garages can be beautiful

  1. barry says:

    Somehow the “lipstick on a pig” episode in the 2008 election comes to mind. While you are right that its better to have well designed parking garages than not, even the one in Staunton is a killer for pedestrians walking in front of it, at least a killer for enjoying the walk.
    I think cities would be best off minimizing car travel in their historic cores as so many European cities do, indeed a lot of the pictures of beautiful streetscapes on this blog are auto-free. We once had a vision of that in Providence but instead we create ever more subsidized parking, even on part of the State House lawn!

    Like

    • I know, I know, Barry. But look at what they’re proposing at South Street Landing. It will kill pedestrian enjoyment not just to walk in front of but to be anywhere near that garage, and erode the pleasure offered by the beautiful plant.

      Like

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