the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Garage Aesthetics

Posted by gninja on January 22, 2008

There is a great, great article about parking garages at the Washington Post.  Hell, I’ve never parked a car in my life (no driver’s license), and I find this fascinating.


The article reviews a talk (based on the speaker’s new book) dealing with the design and evolution of parking garages.  The basic premise is that garages, once impressive architectural works, became uglier as motorists demanded greater convenience.

Towards the end of the article, the journalist adds some editorial commentary that I had hoped–but never expected–would be made:

McDonald’s passion is not undiscriminating, but it is premised on some things that we would all be better off questioning. Garages, McDonald argues, are a necessity, essential to our fundamental American right to mobility in an urbanized world. The challenge is to build them better.

Yes, they can be built better than they have been (they can intersect with mass transit, they can be hidden underground or disguised behind better facades). But until the economics of urban land use and the demand for huge amounts of parking change, they can never really be made beautiful. They are almost always too large to be successfully hidden and, rather like funeral parlors, no matter how nice they are on the outside, you always know what’s on the inside. In the case of garages, it’s hundreds of little environmental disasters that burden their owners with debt, insulate them from society, frazzle them with constant cleaning and maintenance and pollute a crowded world.

If you hate garages — for being city killers, for ruining neighborhoods, for discouraging mass transit — there is no such thing as a good garage.

Which brought, to my mind, an interesting question.  Can aesthetics prompt (or be instrumental in) a movement to  get rid of these things and, as a consequence, cars?  It’s an idealistic question, to be sure.  Nevertheless.
Now, we know parking garages are ugly.  Most of the ones I’ve seen anyway.


Why ugly?  It is a giant box plunked onto the street, aesthetically oblivious to its surroundings.  It has no architecturally elements that encourage the eye to move in a manner that engages the mind (just long horizontals or negative space across a facade of uniform color and texture).  Look, if you like Philliip Johnson, then this is probably for you .  But, even then, aren’t Johnson’s buildings supposed to give the mind little to do when looking at them?  Maybe four years at List Art Center just made me bitter.

The point, though, is that, clearly, this kind of ugliness hasn’t caused a great enough reaction to cause people to ditch their cars.

But, maybe this a product of naturalization in design.  It’s common for the mind to accept images (or sights) as givens when no alternatives are presented. (This is why the use of two projectors or side-by-side images on Powerpoint is so successful in art history classes– comparison forces the mind to consider alternatives).

So.  What if, instead of designing better and more beautiful garages (like the ASU one pictured up top), people start designing better and more beautiful bus depots, subways, etc?  Give people visual alternatives and perhaps behavioral alternatives will ensue?

I’m such an idealist.

13 Responses to “Garage Aesthetics”

  1. anna said

    some of your text got cut off (before the quotation), or maybe it’s my screen…
    isn’t there a song about paving paradise and building garages? i think so.

  2. anna said

    i agree with building more beautiful everything. including funeral parlours. and offering humour classes in college.
    le sigh.

  3. gninja said

    I know, I know. I’ve been so lazy lately. I put things up and then leave them with mistakes, formatting errors, etc. Ah well.

    I’m not sure Joni Mitchell was right, though. Most parking lots rarely had paradise as their forerunners. Opinions differ.

  4. gninja said

    You spelled humor the silly way!

    In any case, I decided my next career is going to be a professor of jokes.

  5. anna said

    that’s pretty funny (i had to).

  6. anna said

    you’re right, joni may not understand that for some a park is much worse than a garage. especially one with no parking (i’m so on a funny roll).

  7. anna said

    is that little picture of you showering in your wedding dress (pant suit)??? i can’t tell. but that would be cool.

  8. anna said

    one last thing, some of philip johnson’s buildings are quite nice. at least one of them prevents stone throwing (violence) while fulfilling a common wisdom (respect of history). see!

  9. gninja said

    No. You’re wrong. All his buildings are horrible. Trust me, I’ve seen, like, 4 of them. I need no further information.

    And no–the picture is of me in a white tank top, in front of the bathroom mirror. It’s very artsy.

  10. anna said

    did you see the one on the hill with the secret note? i’ve always wondered about what it says and have always known that i’d never actually go to check it out…
    i like the glass house. i really do. even though it’s just a glass box.

  11. gninja said

    I haven’t heard about the secret note. That sounds kind of cool. I’m going to check it out…hold on while I crack my knuckles and get googling.

  12. anna said

    let me know if you find out… i’ve been wondering about it since senior year of high school.
    “my reeds, my reeds”

  13. anna said

    let me know if you find out… i’ve been wondering about it since senior year of high school.
    “my reeds, my reeds”

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