“They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot”
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
Multistory carparks, and underground carparks, too, are the urban storage media of the automobile age and of cities designed to revolve around cars. Instead of data sets, these downtown servers temporarily store masses of mobile units and keep them ready for use before and after work or business hours. At these places, traffic comes to a planned halt. Here, cars as a mobile unit are duly arranged in order, meaning the vehicle is parked for hours or days.
In the foreword to his standard 2013 work for planners on “Parking Structures (Construction and Design Manual)” Ilja Irmscher relies on a series of designations for the type of building involved, depending on the region and specific function: parking lots, parking buildings, parking stacks, parking systems or combinations such as multistory or underground carparks, etc. As regards their practical use, he notes: “The geometrical measurements of parking buildings is derived from the functional requirements of driving and maneuvering the vehicles to be parked and the space required for the users to get in and out of them and thus there is a universal design methodology applicable world-wide.” Even if this may be no consolation to the not rarely despairing users who face far too narrow parking slots, he adds: “It bears noting that the regulations frequently only state minimum dimensions that suffice only for relatively small standard vehicles and lay little claim to comfort.” Anyone who has ever entered an older multistory carpark in a spacious sedan or a massive SUV has quite literally found out what practical problems lurk behind terms such as “minimum dimensions” or “standard vehicle”.
While the Citroën Garage at Rue Marbeuf in Paris at the end of the 1920s with its brightly illuminated glass front, its spiral entry and exit ramps, its gasoline pumps, repair shop and car wash still had the feel of a “motel for autos” about it, such domesticity has long since had to give way to the sobriety of ugly functional builds and the notion of service has gone overboard too. Where once, while you were away at work or wandering about town, minor repairs or a tire change took place, the tank was refilled and the car-body possibly washed and waxed, all you have today are automats, that (assuming you have found them), disdainfully demand a ticket with words such as “Please insert ticket” and then bereft of all emotion dispense a receipt.
Nevertheless: Without such architectures of traffic at a halt in our congested downtown areas mobility in the sense of traffic flow would be inconceivable. If everyone were on the road at the same time, all you would have would be gridlock. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that it was not the growing number of automobiles that attracted the corresponding infrastructure of roads, bridges and multistory carparks, but the other way round: It was the infrastructure that was in place which first aroused the wish among many to own their own four wheels. “The increasing number of roads and car parks,” Oswald writes, “sowed ever more traffic.” Despite this obvious vicious circle and today’s permanent go-slows, the Modernist adage of a Le Corbusier seems to have forfeited none of its fascination: “The city of speed is the city of success.”
While the auto may now have lost a little bit of its radiance as a fetish and the epitome of a self-determined, dynamic way of life, individual mass mobility continues to really challenge our cities. In order to if not solve then at least mitigate the hunt for a parking space, traffic planners and architects today tend to prioritize network parking guidance systems, more efficient design of the parking spaces (and this can include mechanical or automatic parking systems) and in the future we may say a fruitful culmination of the current R&D going into systems such as “autonomous parking”.
Not that this really alters many of the principles behind the construction task with “multistory carparks”. The brief is more or less always the same. Hard to comprehend, for example, that in Germany the politicians may be grandiosely declaring the need for electro-mobility and even of late have approved subsidies for purchases of e-cars, but the corresponding carpark decrees do not state that connections for charger stations are mandatory. Evidently someone forget that at the beginning of the automobile age it was the functioning infrastructure that primed the need for cars. In the amended version of the Hessen Decree on the Construction and Operation of Garages and Carparks (Garage Decree) that came into force on January 1, 2015 electric charging columns are still not mandatory. But it at least states in section 2 para. 3: “Garages must have a sufficient number of parking spaces that have a connection to charging stations for electric cars. Such parking spaces must make up a share of at least five percent of the total number of spaces.” Well that’s a beginning at least.
With regard to the storage media of the automobile age, for the foreseeable future the proposition put forward by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk will no doubt continue to apply: “It is above all the modern mobilization of passenger and goods transport that created radically changed perceptual and design conditions for the essence of human dwellings.” What this spells can be sung along with Joni Mitchell: “They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.” In this case, they means all of us. And it can even be a kind of high-bay warehouse that goes by the name of a parking lot.
Parking Structures (Construction and Design Manual)
With essays by Ivan Kosarev and
Angela Schiefenhövel and an introduction by
2 vols boxed set, approx. 550 pages., over 600 ills.,
DOM publishers, Berlin 2013
New edition forthcoming
Photo © Eibe Sönnecken / PalaisQuartier