Ramps Give a Slant on Design

Ramps Give a Slant on Design
Thomas Hine

This article first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 11, 1994.

One of the best places to start to understand much of today's avant-garde architecture is in a parking garage. Almost any one built in the last 30 years or so will do.

Get carefully out of your car and consider where you are. You may be standing on a sloping floor. The space in which you stand is ambiguous and endless. Where does Level D end and Level E begin, and why? And are you indoors or outdoors?

Every element of traditional humanistic architectural space--the walls, the floor, the ceiling--is ambiguous, askew or both. The parking garage subverts all architectural expectations.

Jussieu Library at the University of Paris

Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany

Melun-Senart outside of Paris

But they are built routinely, and we use them with scarcely a second thought. The spatial experience of the parking garage may actually be more consonant with how most people experience the contemporary environment of highways, interchanges, electronic media and computers than their experience with traditional buildings. Most architecture is solid and static. Parking garages make room for dynamism. And each of the cars is a private realm that has entered the place but is essentially unaffected by it. The classical principles of architecture seem not to apply. In our world, the renaissance man--standing firm, heroic, contemplative but ready to act--would probably get run over.

Here in the East, we speak of parking garages, out in many other areas, they're called parking ramps. This is an interesting linguistic difference. The word garage implies a building, while a ramp is an extension of the road. And, in fact, most parking garages are not really buildings with discrete floors but are actually tightly coiled bits of road.

The parking, structures that most architects admire and seek to build keep the sloping ramps out of sight and keep the outer walls horizontal. That allows the garage to be perceived as simply another building rather than the different sort of animal that it is. But most of the time, such a configuration does not prove to be the most efficient or economical one, and the garage's true nature must be exposed on the outside.

An enormons garage recently completed by Hahnemann University on Broad Street, just north of Vine, makes a laughable attempt to show a respectable face to the world. On Broad Street, where the floors of the garage are horizontal, the building wears a sort of half-mask in the form of an illiterately classical polished granite facade. The facade does not cover the entire concrete structure, a gesture that's either honest or ironic. I'm not sure which.

Only if you are directly in front of the garage on Broad Street does this facade dominate your impression of the building. Elsewhere, the reality of the building, with its concrete structure and sloping floors, is inescapable.

This garage might be a bit sillier than most, but it is far from atypical. If you were an architect trying to get a clue about where to go next, would you choose to explore this structure's pathetic veneer of civility? Or would you be interested in the unpretentious vigor of the construction? The question answers itself.

And given that modern art has, for more than a century, sought to understand and aestheticize the consequences of changing technology, it is surprising that the paradigm of the parking garage and the exit ramp has taken so long to penetrate.

There are, of course, precedents. The ancient Egyptians used ramps quite a bit in their monumental structures. And in Italian hill towns, flat level spaces are rare, while slopes, skewed geometry, and the feeling that you might fall off the town into the countryside are commonplace.

Frank Lloyd Wright's longtime interest in ramps and spirals culminated in the Guggenheim Museum. But there were other projects, including the Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, where he shaped the floors as well as the walls and ceilings to provide a heightened.spatial experience.

Another influence may be the Americans With Disabilities Act, one of whose consequences is to make the pedestrian environment more suitable for wheeled vehicles. Branch post offices are being retrofitted with switchback ramps more elaborate, inefficient and confusing than projects proposed by London-based avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid at her ziggiest.

The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, whose work with his Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture is the subject of a current exhibition at the Museum of Modem Art in New York, would probably have trouble with the Americans With Disabilities Act if he tried to build in this country. The buildings he proposes have entire steeply slanting floors, with slopes long enough to propel an unwary wheelchair user right through the plate-glass window.

Unlike Wright's ramps, with their clear geometries, the designs that Koolhaas has done for such buildings as the Jussieu Library at the University of Paris, a 1993 competition winner, and the Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany, slope and swoop according to no obvious principle. In his design that was not selected for the National Library in Paris, he proposed a high-rise as a sort of jungle-gym structure in which a group of diverse, spatially distinctive structures would be suspended in an apparently improvisatory way.

Only two of the designs in the exhibition have been built, and I haven't seen them. The purposely crude models suggest places that can either be exciting or intolerable. And if you see something in the model and wonder why it was done, the plans presented do not help. The buildings are conceived as dynamic habitable sculptures, and the plans do not generate their form but serve more as snapshots of the result.

Koolhaas' explanations of the projects, which are printed on the exhibition's walls and in a 12-page newspaper handed out in the galleries, are more helpful (though awfully long to read in the gallery). Writing was Koolhaas' first claim to fame. His 1978 Delirious New York, a strange amalgam of history, fantasy and speculation on the nature of cities, is one of the most important and amusing books in its field during the last two decades. His is one of the most interesting minds in architecture.

I'm not sure what it would really be like to work and do research in his proposed Jussieu library. But he makes a lovely argument for this mad parking garage-derived structure as an antidote for the windswept, empty monumentality of the 1960s campus in which it will stand. He argues that the building should be a "social magic carpet," that has been folded and stacked to create a density its setting lacks.

He continues: "Sections of each level are manipulated to touch those above and below; all the planes are connected by a single trajectory, a warped interior boulevard that exposes and relates all programmatic elements."

He foresees the visitor "inspecting and being seduced by the world of books and information--by the urban scenario." He accompanies this design with one of the few really helpful drawings in the show, a diagram of the path through the building from bottom to top.

You needn't follow this path, however. Unlike a real boulevard, this one offers shortcuts--escalators and elevators that, like the chutes and ladders in the children's game, provide elements of discontinnity that make life interesting. Sometimes you'll stroll. At other times, you'll get right to work. And this folded, indeterminate form, which derives from building types that are often viewed as anti-architectural and anti-urban, is deployed to accommodate the accidents and opportunities of urban life that earlier architects and planners purged from the rest of the campus.

Standing in stark contrast to this optimistic design is a 1987 competition entry for a new town at Melun-Senart outside of Paris. The model, a landscape of wood chips, huge nails and broom straws, crisscrossed by highways and interchanges, is a beautiful representation of the ugliness that development almost always brings.

"The site ... is too beautiful to imagine a new city there with innocence and impunity," . Koolhaas writes. He says he decided to begin not with what shouldn't be built but with what shouldn't be destroyed.

"And then we said, 'The rest we will surrender to chaos.' We will abandon the residue ... to the average-contemporary-everyday ugliness of current European-American-Japanese , architecture, and generate, through that ugliness, a potentially sublime contrast between the empty areas of the site--those we had protected from building--and the uncontrollable, almost cancerous chaotic growth of the city as a whole."

2005.06.26 11:35
Re: parking ramp!
Le Corbusier's Palais des Congrès design for a European Parliament (unexecuted 1964) has informed my architectural imagination since I first became aware of it in the early 1980s. I built a computer model of the design in 1990, and in 1991 I/Arcadia published CAD generated drawings and slides of the model. What attracted me most to the design was the great sweeping ramp flying out the back of the building and in turn becoming the roof it reminded me of highway ramps and thus made me begin to wonder how such ramps could further become a part of architecture. While building the model, I also discovered Le Corbusier's promenade architecturale formula, which was also published with the drawings and slides of 1991. The Palais des Congrès design has, since 1991, become an 'inspiration' for Koolhaas, and I have since always wondered if Koolhaas ever saw my drawings, analysis and slides at Harvard.
In the mid-1980s, I was fond of saying that I want a house just like the parking garage at 12th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. I came to know that garage quite well as it was my parking lot of choice for many nights of clubbing. I told people I'd live on the top two levels (which had the best views) and the rest would remain a garage to generate income. My friends would get a pass, and it would be fun having them drive right into my living room. (See what over-indulgent extra-curricular social activities will do to the architectural imagination.)
Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by an architectural review by Thomas Hine (my architectural journalism instructor in 1977) that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 11, 1994.

Parking garages are almost always an element of that cancerous growth. We needn't find [parking garages] beautiful. But perhaps they do contain the seeds of great things to come.



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