Rupert Cornwell: The car park: a celebration of its place in history

Out of America: A new exhibition examining the evolution of the humble garage proves surprisingly enthralling

Share
Related Topics

With its eight gigantic Corinthian columns, its airy arcaded galleries and its football field dimensions, the great hall of the National Building Museum, here in Washington DC, must be one of the most spectacular interiors on earth. Just one amenity is lacking; a parking garage. But right now the museum is making up for that omission. Not by installing one, but by mounting an exhibition about parking garages – those unsung buildings without which urban life in this utterly car-dependent society would turn into apocalypse by gridlock.

I hear your sighs of disbelief. What lends itself less to an exhibition than, as the museum refers to it, "the relationship between the parked car and the places where we live work and play?" In fact, the show is enthralling. The story of the parking garage is a parallel history of urban America.

The first generation, back in the early 1900s, were mostly converted stables, as the motor vehicle began to supplant the horse as the prime mode of transport in America's cities (not before time given that, according to some zealous statistician of the era, horses were by 1880 depositing 4,000,000 lbs of manure and 14,000 gallons of urine on the streets of New York every day).

The exhibition charts the subsequent milestones. The first underground city car park came in the 1920s, in Pittsburgh. But open-sided multi-storey garages did not take hold until the late 1940s and 1950s, when cars were sturdy enough to withstand exposure to the elements. Along the way, there were some notable inventions. You probably imagined the term "double helix" was invented to describe the two-strand structure of DNA, jointly discovered by Francis Crick in 1953. If so, you would be wrong. The first double-helix parking garages, where cars ascend on one spiral ramp and descend on another, so that they never meet, saw the light of day in Richmond Virginia, a quarter century earlier.

Vast numbers of fine buildings were ripped down to accommodate these structures, but a few parking garages are becoming what railway stations used to be: places you might want to have a look at in their own right. The car and the plane have all but destroyed rail travel in the US; here, the renaissance of the railway station evident in Europe, has yet to happen.

But, as the exhibit shows, the humble parking garage is acquiring something of a pedigree. Celebrated architects like I M Pei, Eero Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright have turned their hands to them. The latest attraction in trendy South Beach Miami is a new 300-car garage on Lincoln Road, designed by the swanky Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, responsible for – among other things – the Tate Modern in London, and the "Birds Nest" Olympic stadium in Beijing.

The floors of the open-sided, 125ft-high building are concrete slabs, supported by tilting concrete pillars. It features shops and restaurants on the ground floor and a penthouse with terrific ocean views on top, prompting one critic to rave about this "soaring, angular hi-tech testament to form following function".

But South Beach is not alone. At the Texas Medical Center in Houston, the main parking garage's front is formed by a delicate waterfall cascading from the top deck. Other garages now employ "wind veils", facades that move like a field of metallic grass, to conceal the cars within.

But in truth, such fancy establishments are nothing new. When cars were a novelty, so were parking garages. The term motel was conceived not for humans but for cars, as in the Motor Hotel built in Denver in the 1930s. The exhibition features garages that had attendants like soldiers in dress uniform, and others with special levels for women. Washington's own contribution to the history of the parking garage was the 1951 "Parkomat", a narrow multi-storey garage manned by a single attendant, where you dropped your car off at ground level, and a series of hoists and rails lifted it to a vacant spot. "Parking or returning your car takes just 50 seconds," gushed the newsreels.

In those years of innocence, parking garages could still be things of wonder – not dark and spooky places of echoing footsteps, beloved of every director of thriller movies. Now they are a commonplace, but still a crucial part of city planning. Imagine if they did not exist. America already has enough disembowelled small towns, whose most economical use of land is the parking lot. Without the parking garage, either above or below ground, American cities would go the same way, transformed into endless expanses of tarmac, from which buildings rise like lonely islands.

The inner-city parking lot is of course still with us. Take Detroit (which has a thing or two to answer for when it comes to car-choked urban life). I remember how it ripped down the former downtown headquarters of Tamla Motown, turning the site into a parking lot for the 2006 Super Bowl. Could any deed more unmistakably symbolise the downfall of a city?

Even sadder is the tale of the former Michigan Theater. Once it was the biggest, glitziest movie house in Detroit, built in French renaissance style with columns and inlaid ceilings. Now the half-derelict building is a parking garage, perhaps the most beautiful, and certainly the saddest in the country. This monument to decay stands on the site of the tiny workshop where back in 1896 a young engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company built his first car, whose successors would fill parking garages throughout the land. His name was Henry Ford.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - London - £43,000

£35000 - £43000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior IT Support Analyst...

Recruitment Genius: Technical SEO Specialist

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The digital world is incredible – but it’s human bonds that make us who we are

Joanna Shields
A mother and her child  

50 signs that we need to stop spreading the myth of the 'ideal mother'

Victoria Richards
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness