Photo: The New York Times
Last Friday, New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman laid down some frightening statistics about American parking lots: not only are there possibly as many as 2 billion parking spaces from sea to shining sea, but the parking lot, that paved desert for inert cars, has become what M.I.T. urban planning professor Eran Ben-Joseph calls “the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment,” occupying over 3,500 square miles of land within the country and providing an estimated eight parking spots for every car.
America, how did we let ourselves go like this? How did Lewis Mumford’s premonitions go completely unheeded, and how can we put an end to these asphalt facilitators of urban blight? Unwilling to despair, Kimmelman asks us to contemplate new ways of imagining the parking lot, including ways to consider the parking lot as a serious architectural entity. His heroes: Brooklyn firm Interboro Partners.
A working lot at Disney World, Orlando, Florida. Photo: The New York Times
The first step to reversing this trend would be to stop building parking spaces. No surprises here. For those who fear for their automotive convenience, admittedly or not, Kimmelman provides some food for thought: “A space may not be open precisely when and where a driver wants it. But the journal Transportation Science has shown that drivers who parked at the first available spot and then walked to their destination of average saved considerable time (never mind savings in gasoline and anxiety) over those who cruised around until a ‘better’ spot opened.”
This is not to say that the paving process should end here and now; Kimmelman is critical only of the rampant proliferation of parking lots, suggesting that cities need to revisit their zoning codes, and parking spaces should be generated out of actual demand instead of in adherence to outmoded municipal requirements. This could mean turning over the construction of parking lots to free market forces or perhaps fixing the ratio of parking spaces to residences and offices.
Kimmelman’s message implies that the parking lot is not going away anytime soon. So the next step is to rethink the parking lot and envision how a less than desirable necessity can become a desirable and productive work of architecture. For this agenda, Kimmelman turns to Brooklyn, specifically to the most recent firm to reinvent P.S.1’s courtyard: Interboro Partners.
Interboro has become a veritable force on the architecture scene for its subtle aesthetic of social activism. Partners Tobias Armborst, Georgeen Theodore and Daniel D’Oca have developed a trademark research-based approach to architecture, actively observing urban phenomena and finding the neglected, the underserved, or even the abhorred as openings for architectural possibility. To them, architecture’s capacity for change rests in its ability to account for what already exists, to recognize the limitations of a site and to recast those very limitations as opportunities for innovation.
Landbanked Dutchess County Mall broken down into its composite parts. Image courtesy the architects
One project took the site of the Dutchess County Mall as its launching point: Interboro noticed that the landbanked mall and parking lot, which sat idly waiting for a rise in property values, had quietly diversified its functions to meet local needs: what was once purely a space for strip mall shoppers to leave their vehicles became a bus depot, a drive-in food court, a weekend flea market, and an ad-hoc office space for small businesses. Thus concealed behind an image of bleak, suburban sprawl was actually a thriving community of small economies in harmonious, unregulated coexistence. The lot became what Interboro calls a laboratory for “small, cheap, feasible experiments.”
Photo: The New York Times
The firm then imagined what the parking lot could become, specifically how its architecture can respond to how people already use the space. They proposed installing fitness and day care centers, a nightclub, a beer garden, a recycling facility, a used-car business, and a readymade band shell for a summer stage, all of which stem from actual local demands. Though the developer ultimately turned down Interboro’s proposal, the scheme suggests that parking lots deserve the same rigorous thought as any respectable building.
In looking at Interboro, Kimmelman is not asking for all the next parking lot commissions to go to Zaha Hadid or Herzog & de Meuron. Instead, he is proposing that cities should openly engage with parking lots as public spaces instead of automatic dead zones. His model of choice also suggests that architecture need not make sweeping visual statements to be considered successful. “The best architecture,” Kimmelman concludes, “can be light on its feet.”
Learn more about Interboro’s Dutchess County Mall project on Architizer.