Large, looming, and dimly lit parking garages are a fact of life in cities and suburbs across the U.S., where the automobile reigns as our favorite mode of personal transportation. Worldwide, the number of vehicles on the roads surpassed 1 billion in 2010, according to WardsAuto Group, and will only continue to increase. Providing space for this burgeoning fleet is an ongoing challenge for communities, particularly as they become denser.

Generally considered the province of engineers and design/build contractors, parking structures have long been a rote sort of project that is often ruled by the mandates of zoning laws, building codes, and the bottom line. Other than physical proximity, they have largely been conceived separately from the buildings that they serve. And that thinking has resulted in the utilitarian steel-and-concrete behemoths that interrupt the flow of the urban fabric with long stretches of barren-walled sidewalk. “When I started doing parking garages 10 to 15 years ago, when you would tell a story about the structure, folks would say, ‘Why even have an architect?’ ” says George Hibbs, AIA, a principal at Trenton, N.J.–based firm Clarke Caton Hintz. “It seems like an engineering job.”

But the parking garage is entering a renaissance. The New Urbanism movement has emphasized walkable environments and multi-modal transit, and the design profession has transitioned from the machinelike efficiency and compartmentalization that underpinned Modernism to more humanistic spaces. Fresh approaches to the typology can be seen in the slew of high-design parking structures that have landed in Miami, designed by the likes of Gehry Partners, Herzog & de Meuron, and Arquitectonica. Parking structures are no longer just a means to multiply the surface parking lot; rather, they can be key to the urban fabric and a vital piece of infrastructure that can profoundly affect how we plan for a more sustainable future.

“We’re at a point now where, while there are certainly folks who don’t see the typology as being at the forefront, it’s come a long way,” Hibbs says. “We are now seeing the integration of light, of color, the integration of mass transit, and the belief that it’s something that adds to the complexity of the urban environment.”

The Shift to Functionalism
At the dawn of the parking garage in Chicago in 1918, the building typology had little distinction from other structures. Automobiles of this era were not designed or built to weather the elements and had to be housed much in the same manner as people. As a result, garages’ façades looked virtually identical to the apartment buildings that they abutted, complete with ornamental embellishments such as pilasters, gargoyles, arches, and rosettes.

Inside the structures, service staff operated elevators and turntables, lifting vehicles up multiple levels and depositing them in tight spaces for long-term storage. From the outside, the parking structures appeared as just another thread in the urban fabric.

By the mid-20th century, innovations in building technologies, such as precast concrete structural members, along with newer automobiles that were more durable made it feasible as well as cheaper to build the for-cars-only, open-steel, and concrete-decked parking structures that we know today. At the same time, city zoning laws began to mandate that new developments include off-street parking.

Despite the obvious connections between parking structures and the buildings and urban environments that they served, the two entities were mostly conceived separately. The building was architecture, the streetscape was a part of urban planning, and the garage was an engineering exercise whose goal was little more than satisfying functional requirements. In the words of Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, principal at Los Angeles–based firm Brooks + Scarpa, “Parking garages evolved into utilitarian structures for stacking cars.”