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A Drab New Garage Challenges Providence’s Claim of Creativity

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

 

 

- When is the last time you encountered a parking garage that took away your breath with its beauty?

- When was the last time you cringed at being in a dark, low-ceilinged Hellhole of a parking garage?

- Have you ever asked yourself why we take for granted such depressing and omni-present structures in our urbanscape?

- Do you not wonder why in the so-called Creative Capital we cannot commission an attractively designed garage?

These questions come to the fore when we look at the massive and undistinguished pile of concrete that is under construction as part of the South Street Landing Rehabilitation Project in the Jewelry District. Set to open in October, this seven-story cube of unmitigated dreariness will hold 744 cars.

 

South Street Parking Garage

 

Aside from whether inserting 1488 polluting car trips into downtown traffic every day is the wisest of planning decisions, the design of this behemoth leaves much to be desired. (Ever wonder why automobiles take precedence over people in American city planning?). The heart of the project is the transformation of the 100-year-old Narragansett Lighting Company power plant into the home of the Rhode Island Nursing Education Center. Yet, the cacophonous placement of the lumpen garage next to the handsome Georgian Revival temple of industry borders on the obscene.

 

South Street parking garage with Narragansett Lighting Company

 

There are codes required for erecting a parking structure: amount of space required for moving and parked cars, entrance and egress, and so on. But rather than being the starting point for innovation, these requirements are usually so strictly adhered to that the end result is a lowest-common-denominator result. And so Providence is getting another dark and depressing maze that will do absolutely nothing to nurture our collective civic spirit.

 

"Abandon all hope ye who enter here" Parking garage at Richmond and South Streets

 

 The new garage is the work of Boston architects Spagnola, Gisness & Associates, who also did the only slightly less vapid GTECH building in Capitol Center, as well as a similar garage for Yale New Haven Hospital that is the Providence version's doppelganger. (SGA's renderings for proposed graduate student housing at South Street display equally uninspired design.) The architects' slick presentation image of the garage projects something fancier than what we see now. To be fair, a series of screens are to be attached to the garage façade in an effort to hide its true and utterly banal appearance. Lipstick on a pig.

 

Rendering of South Street Landing garage (Courtesy of Spagnola, Gisness & Associates) Note the abundant evening street life

Just because they are functional structures should not mean that garages could not be worthwhile contributors to their surroundings. Back in the Jazz Age, Americans came up with some remarkable ways to store cars in the city. Frank Lloyd Wight designed a snazzy circular "self-service garage" for downtown Pittsburgh in 1949. Paul Rudolph, dean of the architecture school at Yale and designer of Beneficent House on Chestnut Street, built a notably dramatic parking structure in New Haven. While not everyone's favorite style, the Temple Street garage remains one of the iconic Brutalist landmarks of the 1960s.

 

 

Euclid Square Garage, Cleveland, 1912 World's Largest Garage at the time

 

 

Herzog & De Meuron, the Swiss architects who are arguably among the most avant-garde and respected designers in the world, built a parking garage in Miami that is both bold and handsome. During their 2010 annual convention in Florida, the American Institute of Architects even held a reception in the garage.

Back when Zipcar started in Boston–and all their rental cars were lime-green Beetles, the firm of Moskow Linn designed a Zipcar dispenser to fit in a narrow vertical downtown lot. Pez, the ubiquitous American candy, provided the chief inspiration. Keith Moskow and Robert Linn are known for their other "Urban Interventions," such as the River Genie that would collect waterborne garbage. Their book, Small Scale: Creative Solutions for Better City Living, offers four-dozen idiosyncratic and practical ideas. While most of these are unrealized, they should encourage non-linear thinking about solving urban problems.         

 

Zipcar Dispenser, Boston Moskow Linn Architects

 

So, we get back to the question about why our educationally endowed, supposedly aesthetically-conscious city cannot demand better design for such important structures as a several-hundred-thousand square feet, multi-million-dollar parking garage. To most people, a project such as this is just a fairy-tale sketch in the newspaper that, when built, adds very little to quality of life in our city. We should demand better.

 

 

South Street Landing garage The best that Providence can do?

 

 

William Morgan was the architecture critic of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. His column, The Urban Environment, included a piece on new downtown garages, some of which were exceptional designs, far better than the usual Everywhere-and-Anywhere-in-America parking facilities. Morgan's Louisville criticism was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He is also a motorhead.

 

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