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Considering the Parking Garage

by Betsy Lewis 31 May 2011 12:18 PM

The parking garage…charming? ugly? frightening? All of the above, reflects guest blogger Betsy Lewis, whose stroll down Ross Avenue prompted some deep thoughts…and serious name dropping.


Guest blogger Betsy Lewis is a former production coordinator for Art&Seek and associate producer of Think. She blogs about Dallas art for Glasstire.

The lowly parking garage, in its absence or ugliness, is a necessity of forsaken architecture in downtown Dallas. Often abased beneath the Arts District venue it serves, this vehicular cloister of building codes and car storage does what it is asked to do. But beyond the afterthought of structural integrity, if you look closely, you’ll find aberrations of visual charm.

Structuring a parking system underground, rather than allowing it to desolate a carefully designed building, is the new standard. Like a journey to the Biblical bottomless pit of Abaddon, your car descends by ramp or section, hidden from view, bereft of sunlight and society. Some underground garages grant one last look at a lovely thing before initial descent, saying, “In case you never come out again, the garage of the Dallas Museum of Art presents this Henry Moore bronze and this Miguel Covarrubias mural as your final moment of pleasure.”

Even the Records Building some blocks outside the Arts District presents an enriching glimpse of pioneer log cabin fun, should you not survive the subterranean business of Dallas County courts.

The city’s parking alternatives are usually surface-level concrete structures like the Jackson Building at Jackson and St. Paul. You might overlook it. It resembles a large cardboard box that’s been left so long in your dad’s garage that mice have made repeat dining trips to its tasty planes. Though blessed with gutsy durability, its dingy exterior grating provides stunning argument for moving the parking problem underground and out of sight. The architect must have seen parking as punishment, both for him and for us, but this is the sad status of many a public garage.

A quick tour down Ross Avenue shows the art of design for these lonely structures has not been marooned for good. From the intersection of Leonard Street and San Jacinto, a giant mural peers over Ross directly at the Winspear Opera House. Painted on the side of a garage, a giant maestro figure conducts with arms upraised, giant hands skyward and conjuring a fleet of performers dancing, indeed flying, through the glow of a multi-story spotlight. The concrete canvas (which, you’ll remember, moonlights as a simple parking garage) frames the painting with a three-step series of right angles moving upward and inward until the mural shoots higher than the functional garage roof. The middle of the five highest levels is exposed to us lot dwellers, creating a ladder image bursting skyward from the mind of the maestro. But wait, there’s text by Emerson if you’re close enough to read it: “Artists must be sacrificed to their art. Like bees, they must put their lives into the sting they give.” Ponder this garage that quotes Emerson. Ponder it.

A few blocks to the west, we have the open structure of the First Baptist Church garage at Ross and Griffin. Hate it if you must, but the white pipe outline of each spot’s protective mesh square gives the building the elegance of an external grid. It looks like Chuck Close gave the orders on a work by Ed Ruscha. The word P-A-R-K-I-N-G spills down the western edge so awesomely that this paragraph’s name-dropping frenzy will continue by pointing out Walter Gropius’ similar labeling of the Bauhaus Dessau architecture department in 1925.

This is not to say that charm can’t be found in a new design. It can, it has, at Victory Park’s Hard Rock Café on Houston at Continental. Built on top of the main attraction, the garage is a triple-layer cake of efficiency with a tree-lined garden for a crown. Lattices wild with green fauna roost vertically against the parking levels and the result is easy on the eyes.

Are more opportunities being missed? Can’t a surface garage be more than the ugly best friend of the pretty building? Of course it can.

As for the rampant blah of existing garages, we will park with open hearts, hoping to sift out a little beauty in the base.

  • Jennifer

    Great post!
    I’ve been thinking about this very topic recently, since photographer J.J. Tiziou’s amazing work will be unveiled soon on the giant parking garage at Philadelphia International Airport (I went to school with J.J.) Entitled, “How Philly Moves,” the work is the result of dozens of people dancing and then J.J. capturing their beautiful movements. Gotta see it:
    The mural is a part of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Project — I so wish Dallas would take something organized like that on to beautify the city and celebrate the arts at the same time!