In the 1976 film All the President's Men, about The Washington Post's investigation of the Watergate scandal, a young Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford) meets his elusive source, Deep Throat, in the dark recesses of a parking garage on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. An eerie, isolated, concrete mass, it is the ideal setting for their furtive conversations. When conspiring to unmask corruption, what better place to rendezvous than a parking garage at night?

For the most part, parking garages are still utilitarian nonplaces, structures that house cars whose drivers quickly move on to someplace else. But this may be changing. A shift in the way municipalities think about parking, coupled with the introduction of new technologies, is releasing a flood of innovative design with regional flare, mixed uses, and green features.

THE RISE OF REGIONALISM

In the 1980s, Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, S.C., did something surprising. He asked architects to design parking decks in the tourist-clogged downtown area that wouldn't look like places you could park. Riley believed that in the case of the parking garage, form should never, ever follow function. “In livable downtown Charleston, we insist that garages look like office buildings and have retail on the first floor,” he once told a room of urban planners. “As a result, there are garages in Charleston that you would not know were garages unless you were told.”

For most parking operators, this is an unnerving prospect. The primary objective behind parking garage design is commodity: How much money can you squeeze out of the spaces available? Developers often argue that changing the immediately recognizable look of a parking garage means that drivers won't know to park there.

Riley proved the naysayers wrong. With the help of his architectural team, he successfully developed busy municipal garages that integrated into the historic fabric of the antebellum city. Instead of heralding the usual street-front access, signage directed drivers down alleys and into rear entrances. This freed the street for pedestrian activity and retail. Instead of open decks that hover above ground to reveal the pigeon-splattered grilles of cars, garages incorporated clever cladding techniques, like exterior blinds that allow for ventilation while referencing the regional vernacular of the Charleston window.

Today, other cities are following Charleston's lead. In 2004, Chicago rewrote its zoning regulations for the first time in 47 years. After decades of simply encouraging developers to integrate garages into the surrounding area, officials finally formalized design dictates requiring them to do so.

  • Credit: Peter Arkle

“The city would like to have parking garages not look like parking garages,” says Pier Luigi Panicali. Panicali is a vice president in the Chicago office of Desman Associates, a firm specializing in transportation design with seven offices around the country and an international client base.

A licensed architect and a registered structural engineer, Panicali has paid close attention to the evolution of the parking garage since he began his career in the 1970s. “Back then, garages were primarily utilitarian, stand-alone structures created by engineers,” Panicali says. “Because of the urbanizing of the U.S., quite frankly, and the growing density in cities, parking garages are no longer a structural engineering specialty. Now [they're] a mixed-use specialty.”

Desman has completed several mixed-use developments in Chicago, like a project in the burgeoning North Michigan Avenue shopping district built in 1999. This 1,020-car garage sits on top of street-level restaurants and a retail store. The parking structure is adorned with an aluminum-panel system that hangs from the building at an angle, giving the complex a sculptural feel.

  • Credit: Peter Arkle

Chicago isn't the only city looking for inventive architecture, according to Panicali. Across the country, Desman is increasingly being asked to build garages that not only creatively disguise the function but also incorporate regionally sensitive design solutions. In a city-owned garage in downtown Miami, for example, a fiberglass screen fabricated in the shape of a wave was affixed to the structure. Inside, planters filled with varying shades of green were set on every level to fill in the trellised screen.

“The lowest levels were very dark-green foliage, the middle levels were a lighter green, and the upper levels were nearly white,” Panicali says of the garage, which was completed in 1996. “It looks like a wave pattern in the foliage itself. You can't even tell it's a parking garage behind it.”