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All Riled Up Over The Most Generic Buildings: Parking Garages

Meet Curbed Detroit’s newest contributor: architecture critic Kelly Ellsworth. From time to time, she’ll be bringing us detailed arguments about local development, buildings, marketing? or whatever else strikes her fancy. And she's quite fancy.

Santa isn’t bringing Detroit any upgraded public transportation this year. The modern urbanist might start to wonder what he or she did wrong to deserve the lump of coal Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood dropped in our yuletide laps this week, a bus rapid-transit consolation prize notwithstanding. It’s like asking for an iPad and getting an Etch-a-Sketch instead. Well whatever it was you did, it looks like we’ll all have to settle in for a long winter’s nap with our cars.

There seems to be no aspect of car-ownership that riles urbanists up like the parking garage. In Detroit they dominate the downtown landscape in a number of ways: preservationist have seen multiple historic buildings replaced with parking decks; developers are mandated by their lenders to include parking for any residential projects they undertake; pedestrians must walk full city blocks devoid of life to accommodate commuters thoughtless enough to drive to work.

From a design perspective parking decks rarely reward the viewer, most being constructed of pre-fabricated concrete panels to create the most generic of buildings. We’ve got a few interesting ones in the Detroit area, however, so I thought I would take a moment to accentuate the positive in what will undoubtedly be a necessity for the foreseeable future.

The Henry Ford Hospital parking decks situated at the Lodgeand Grand Boulevard were designed by Albert Kahn Associates in 1959. If you want an example of a fun way to jazz up a parking deck sixties-style, look no further. Things to love: interesting even from the freeway; a tiny bit of Brasilia in New Center.

The Jefferson Avenue parking structure, designed by Neumann/Smith and Associates in 1996, is a little postmodern moment across from the Renaissance Center that defies every parking structure convention. Appropriate in scale, harmonious with the buildings that surround it and designed enough that you know it didn’t come out of a giant box. Aldo Rossi would approve. Things to love: a circular ramp; the shocking use of a nineties red that actually doesn’t look dated.

Birmingham is home to possibly the loveliest parking structure in the bunch, the Pierce Street structure (top). Designed by architect Carl Luckenbach in the 1960’s, the deck seems human-scale (despite its mass), organic and light. Things to love: the setback; cantilevered decks; the landscaping. And your first two hours are free!

Hats off to the Comerica Building at Cass & Fort (originally Manufacturers Bank HQ) for being the coolest parking deck in the region. Integrated parking in a building is always a plus, especially when it’s covered with concrete relief panels! Artist Robert Youngman covered the lower levels of the building with custom panels celebrating Detroit’s manufacturing history and you can have a seventies art moment as you walk the block completely unaware on the other side it’s only a parking deck. Things to love: no waste of space on a separate parking deck; art in your face.

—Kelly Ellsworth

· Kelly Ellsworth Takes on Detroit Preservation, Or Lack Thereof [Curbed Detroit]