Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Someplace to Park

I could say any number of things on the subject of parking. I could talk about:
  • the use of "I'd go, but but there's nowhere to park" as a euphemism for "there are too many poor and/or black people in that part of town"
  • the way developers prefer to level an old building for surface parking, rather than rehab it, or, at least build a deck, so there would be no gap in the streetscape
  • the fact that when one arrives by plane or auto, a traveller is welcomed to Richmond by squat, dullish parking decks
  • the de facto observance -- or pointed non-observance -- of "the boss's spot" in technically unassigned lots
  • or even the current parking battle in my 'hood.
But other than sometimes grudgingly calling some decks "not bad," I'd never given much thought to the architecture of storing cars. Architect Shannon Sanders McDonald has thought so much about it, she had to write a book on parking decks: The Parking Deck: Design and Evolution of a Modern Form. Sunday's Washington Post gives a nice account of a talk she gave at the Library of Congress on her subject (Philip Kennicott, "Stacking the Decks: How Parking Garages Got Ugly"). Early parking garages were handsome: the article includes a picture of a D.C. that reminded me of our town's Capital Garage (now apartments). Some designers advocated for tall structures with car elevators; attendants would store and retrieve your car. Sadly, in the U.S. we are all about do-it-yourself, thus almost no one participates in communal kitchens or sends their laundry out or drops their car off to be parked in a skyscraper. Sturdier cars -- ones that needed less protection from the weather -- contributed to the move from enclosed garages to more open decks.

McDonald (or reporter Kennicott) must have observed parking decks "welcoming" people to other cities, too: "... 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."

It's more clearly Kennicott's voice closing with the reminder that "The parking garage is an enabler for an auto-dependent society." He concedes, "McDonald finds beuaty in her subject and has some sensible solutions about how to improve her favorite building type. But in a better world we would enjoy their occasional beauty with nostalgic hindsight, in books as well as well researched and illustrated as McDonald's, or after they've been converted to lofts or torn down altogether."

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