Exploring the History and Future of Parking Garage Designs

For every car that drives on the road, we need to find a place to put it- but are parking garages the answer? Parking garages are often seen as the antithesis of people-friendly urban planning. Large gray boxes are used solely to store cars that make temporary visits and seem like a poor use of space, especially in cities where land comes at a premium. Because of these garages, urban cores have quickly been transformed into parking districts, where vehicle storage dominates the aesthetic of a business district. Building codes only contribute to the problem, where the number of spaces is passed down as a mandate, even spreading out into suburban areas. Parking garages are everywhere- flanking shopping malls, connecting to residential towers, and surrounding sporting venues.

Exploring the History and Future of Parking Garage Designs - Image 4 of 4
© Modern Mechanix

The origins of parking garages as we know them today started during the turn of the 20th century, in the form of carriage houses. These spaces, which once served as places to keep horses, were reimagined to store cars, and as automobiles became more widely accessible, it created a need to have more structures dedicated to protecting the exposed interiors from the elements. Many early designs from the 1920s and 30s featured large pulley systems that hoisted cars up to various floors in stacked towers as a way to save space. Others looked like typical office buildings from the Art Deco era with glass windows and large doors. Passersby would hardly know that these buildings were designed to only store cars. This inspired mega-towers for cars, including the Hotel for Autos, a 24-story skyscraper in New York City which held more than 1,000 vehicles. A proclaimed high-tech miracle for its innovative way of storing and retrieving cars, the cost was 50 cents for two hours and 5 cents for each hour after that. Only a few years after its opening, the garage closed and was transformed into offices, and later high-end condos. For comparison, the largest automated parking structure in New York City can only hold 270 cars.

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© Modern Mechanix

Many architects and designers continued to experiment with the overall forms and structural capabilities of parking garages and by the 1960s, parking garages became part of everyday life. In Chicago, Bertrand Goldberg created one of the most famous parking garages in Marina Tower, combining where people would live, work, play, and park. The office and residential programs were stacked upon nearly 20 floors of a spiraling parking garage. Cars parked there look like plug-and-play pieces on the verge of falling off the structure's edge and into the Chicago River below.

Parking garages continued to evolve, featuring ramps that allowed users to drive their cars in and out but swapping ornament for simplicity. These new parking garages look more like the ones we’re familiar with today- open decks where cars are jam-packed together. Businesses in American cities began to move downtown, and there was an expectation that employees would be given parking spots so that they could drive to the office. Developers who felt pressured to build parking structures did so for low construction costs, totally forgoing any design elements.

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© Gensler via LA Times

Today, along with the outcry to no longer build parking garages, many architects are trying to design more aesthetically pleasing garages by cladding them in colorful materials and lighting systems that help to disguise the ugly grey box behind them. Parking garages in dense cities such as New York City cost nearly $33,000 a space to construct, while only $21,000 in less dense cities such as Jacksonville, Florida, creating a huge financial burden. But there’s also been another movement- to change parking garages programmatically. Many cities are implementing strategies to go car-free in the future, so what purpose will garages even serve 20 or 50 years from now? Is there a way for them to be transformed into offices, residential areas, or community centers? In the meantime, for the parking garages that are being constructed, there’s at least hope that they’ll look better, even if their long-term purpose and role remain questionable.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 20, 2022.

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "Exploring the History and Future of Parking Garage Designs" 18 Mar 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/993988/exploring-the-history-and-future-of-parking-garage-designs> ISSN 0719-8884

© Vincent Desjardins


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