The problem with ramp garages, whether it’s the D’Humy system, or a spiral, or a stack of canted floors, is that they are bewildering. You never quite know your relationship to the ground, or to the building that you’re about to enter. Your car is always a half-floor above or below you, no matter how carefully you plot your return.

Ramps may be an efficient way to store cars, but they sever an age-old architectural connection between you, the building and the earth you drove in on. And garages, in general, give you no sense of entry to a building, or a city. The grand galleries of old rail stations provided a spiritual sense of transition to the city. The garage is always a nuisance, with no sense of drama, or flow, or grandeur.

With the 1930s, when cars no longer needed to be protected from the elements and architectural style became more austere, garages got much worse. They became more strictly functional and unbelievably ugly: squat, low, rectilinear buildings with open sides, showing cars like rows of bad teeth. All too often, especially as cars proliferated in the 1950s and ’60s, garages were plunked into the urban landscape, breaking up neighborhoods, dwarfing (or supplanting) historic buildings, cutting people off from views they once took for granted…

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…They’re here to stay, they can be better.

Or should we work toward their obsolescence and elimination (retained only for shared cars, buses, electric vehicles, etc.)? That is a trenchant, hard-nosed but ultimately more rational choice than the blithe acceptance of them as necessary evils that just need a little tweaking. Banishing the garage would force some social engineering on a population that desperately needs to wean itself from a planet-killing addiction to the automobile. When a neighborhood becomes a parking nightmare, one of two things must happen: People stop going there, or they get there on foot, bicycle, train or bus…

The parking garage is an enabler for an auto-dependent society. The anger and hostility against them that has grown up among committed urbanists is a good thing. McDonald [author of The Parking Garage: Design and Evolution of a Modern Urban Form] finds beauty in her subject and has some sensible suggestions about how to improve her favorite building type. But in a better world, we would enjoy their occasional beauty with nostalgic hindsight, in books as well researched and illustrated as McDonald’s, or after they’ve been converted to lofts or torn down altogether.

Philip Kennicott
The Washington Post