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Architecture

Park places

Where we put our cars, and why it matters

Mapdetroit.com pictures parking in black.
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Published 5/2/2007

"The city is doomed," Henry Ford once said. "We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city." We took Ford's advice, drove out of town and ended up who we are, a people defined by parking. The architecture of parking — call it parkitecture — is consequently the most important account we have of our national character, not excepting the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Americans are less willing to walk than any other people on the planet. We've got more vehicles than there are licensed drivers to operate them, which is where the "city problem" came from in the first place.

Where do you park in a place not designed for cars? Our first response — driving away — became a kind of solution. We left behind great tracts of abandoned real estate that could be converted to parking for the re-entry of suburbanized commuters. But supply didn't keep up with demand, even in a place as abandoned as Detroit, the most parking-dependent and therefore the most American city on the planet.

Things seem to be changing, not that this will solve the parking problem, however. Detroit is leading the seven-county metropolitan region in new housing starts, according to data from SEMCOG, reported in mid-March. The downtown population increased 13 percent above 2006 census projections. This represents an enormous challenge, as new residents join commuters who must find their way to recently relocated corporate headquarters, or entertainment and cultural venues.

Without a working public transportation system, we've got to figure out new places to park our single-commuter vehicles. And we have. Cars are moving in faster than people. There are far more new parking spaces downtown than new apartments or loft conversions. But who ever talks about parkitecture? This quintessentially American form of self-expression proceeds almost invisibly, as if no one pays attention. And given the results, it usually seems no one is.

Not paying attention to the city, or worrying too much about it, was Henry Ford's solution. And that's the essence of parkitecture — a kind of automotive unconscious when it comes to our national acts of self-expression. There are three great phases in the evolution of parkitecture: the naive phase, the brutalist phase and (maybe) the enlightened or heroic phase.

Detroit provides textbook illustrations of each, starting with the naive. All over downtown (though less so now than in years past) there are opportune blacktop and mud-lot expressions of parkitecture. Old, abandoned structures get torn down and a parking lot emerges impromptu, nothing planned. Unsurprisingly, Detroit has the greatest example in the world of naive parkitecture: the old Michigan Theater Building that Eminem visits so operatically in 8 Mile, where cars park in the gutted auditorium and lobby, underneath the crumbling remains of the once lavish theater's ornamentation. The place looks like a cross between Phantom of the Opera and Titanic, after sinking. It's a favorite stop on every insider's tour of the city, because it is ripe with irony, given its location at the very spot where Henry Ford created his first car, with cars now hogging real estate. Nobody seems to learn anything from this ludicrous display of squandering.

This becomes even more visible with the brutalist phase of parkitecture, when operations that started out small-scale and impromptu take on monumental proportions, culminating in the multi-story, poured concrete gulags for cars that can be found across the downtowns of most American cities, certainly this one. These incarcerations are both banal and cruel. Their creepy-cold interiors, cadaverous lighting, and floors and walls that always exude moisture, fuel fantasies of crime that's about to happen (and sometimes does). The parkitecture accompanying casinos is only slightly more appealing. It is brutalism, done up in a cheap, rented tuxedo.

Why would we create such ugly places to begin with? Maybe it's because brutalist parkitecture renders precisely commuters' expectations: arriving back in a city where they no longer live and wanting to feel they have earned their right to ignorance and contempt. No better place to confirm that vision than here — these structures negate the possibility of civic space based on a meaningfully shared past. Detroit's riverfront provides a case in point, where parking decks create a vast wall, as if to protect the citizenry from the threat of unsupervised access to green space or water views, as if people of the pavement cannot be trusted to comport themselves companionably on foot, or else have no desire for experiences that take place outside their cars, except for the scripted spectatorship of sports arenas.

Not that all is brutality. Just the opposite, as we enter an entirely new age of parkitecture, when something enlightened, maybe even heroic, might finally happen. There's no getting around the need for vast amounts of parking downtown. If anything, demand will only increase, now that the city's core has begun again, fingers crossed, to grow in population.

The question, then, is what to make of necessity, and there is reason to be hopeful. If you walk any downtown street today, you are likely to see a new kind of parking structure, designed to look like architectural in-fill, whether a free-standing deck, or else something built into the lower levels of a high-rise. Some places have ground floors inhabited with retail, others don't; but in each instance (even including some parts of the parking-wall along the Detroit River) the aim is to extend the look and feel of urban space, rather than interrupting it. The cars have demanded a setting no less urbane than the people driving them back to town.

This is nowhere more evident, or hopeful, than with the new Blue Cross Blue Shield parking project at Congress and I-375 (another site rich with forgotten history, where Charles Brady King built a gasoline-powered car that was the first to be driven on the streets of Detroit, three months before Henry Ford's quadricycle). The immense structure is nine stories tall, with spaces for 1,825 cars. But it doesn't look like a parking structure, at least not one in Detroit. Each facade has a different design, with windows and cladding that strike up a neighborly conversation with the surrounding architecture of Bricktown.

The shape is irregular and overtly artsy, like some kind of gigantic sculpture. The whole thing appears to be still under construction. Facades have been hung on the superstructure as if they were huge paintings, and there is exuberance in the design that manifests itself in apparently extraneous elements that have no real function, except to signify plenitude, and an enthusiasm to keep on building, even after the project is done. Some superfluous windows and stone panels seem installed just for fun.

Maybe this is where the derelict reign of parkitecture ends: when identifiable parties put their name on a design and take credit for civic ideals worked out at the level of parking. It's enough to make a Detroiter giddy — the sight of a parking deck wearing a tiara of public green space (public space for Blue Cross employees, at least). We've come a long way, and we've paid dearly with a general squandering of resources, unprecedented in the history of stupid human decisions. Our wasting of the city is what makes us who we are, of course, so there's something positively un-American about this new structure downtown. And it's wonderful.

Jerry Herron writes about architecture and urban planning for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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