Ben Kasdan – Form Follows Parking: Inspiring Modernism

American Infrastructure

July 12, 2014

A utilitarian parking structure can be a whimsical focal point for building projects.

By Benjamin Kasdan

When Louis Sullivan, the celebrated Chicago architect and inventor of the steel skyscraper, coined the phrase “form [ever] follows function” in his article The Tall Office Buildings Artistically Considered in 1896, he inadvertently inspired Modernism, in which architecture freed itself from relying on historical precedent and ornamentation and began to manifest itself as a rational expression of its program and its structure alone. Now that we live and work in a post-Post-Modern world, the law that governs the appearance of the built environment has emerged as parking.

Consequently, every contemporary site plan at its core is really just an exercise in finding the most efficient means of storing cars within the constraints of regulatory requirements, the site, and the project budget. The challenge for architects and developers is to find the best car storage solution for each project; typically following this order of preference: surface parking, carports, private garages, above-grade structured parking, subterranean structured parking, and automated parking systems. With structured parking costs starting in the tens of thousands per stall, it is imperative to remain as efficient as possible with parking layouts. To maintain feasibility, sharing compatible parking requirements (such as shared retail and residential guest parking) becomes a necessity.

The key then is to design the right number of parking stalls and take advantage of alternate, or redundant, parking strategies whenever possible. This strategy also must take off-site parking and non-parking solutions into account, such as walkability, bikability, proximity of overflow parking options, and the availability of public transit. If these alternate transportation options are readily accessible and convenient, then it makes sense to reduce the burden of on-site parking. Another strategy that is often overlooked is to consider a holistic parking plan that attempts to remove outdated zoning or building code rules when beneficial to the community.

Contrary to conventional public policy, it is not beneficial to dominate our urban fabric with facilities designed for vehicles; instead the priority of urban design should shift back towards the experience of the pedestrian. This takes a partnership with the local jurisdictions, but cities such as Sacramento, Calif., have already adopted the use of “district parking” in which parking ratios are based upon parking supply and availability of transit in each district. As a result, developments in Sacramento can participate in centralized parking opportunities in lieu of on-site parking in order to provide more community-serving uses at the sidewalk level.

However, the design paradox remains in that not building enough parking can render a development partially unusable, while building too much parking can cause a development to underperform economically. As a result, most developments will continue to provide significant on-site parking facilities for the foreseeable future. The next challenge facing designers is how to design the look of those above-grade parking facilities. Much to the late Louis Sullivan’s dismay, a common approach is to disguise a parking structure as a different function with ornament and fake window mullions. The problem is that parking garage spaces behave quite differently from spaces designed for people, which is especially evident by their respective lighting schemes, and no one actually falls for the disguise.

A more successful strategy is to embrace the function and instead design a good-looking parking structure. Garages offer opportunities for incorporating vertical planting, photovoltaics, supergraphics, and public art in ways that many other building types cannot. The aesthetic rules can change for designing the exterior of a parking structure as opposed to a human structure, and they should. When seen as a blank canvas, a utilitarian parking structure can shed its stigma of needing screening to become a whimsical focal point for the project.