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Vehicular Visions

Behold the lowly parking garage, the nadir of the urban landscape. Now behold what some inspired architects would do with one if given the chance.

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The next time you're tossing out those old cardboard mailing tubes or the cores of wrapping paper rolls, think of this: you could have made them into a house for an earthquake victim. Well, probably not you, but Japanese architect Shigeru Ban could have. He's built a career creating incredible structures out of recycled paper.

Ban was recently in Chicago to chair the jury for the Stop Go, Chicago Portal Project competition, sponsored by the Chicago Architectural Club, Friends of Downtown, and the American Institute of Architects Chicago Design Committee. The international event called for designs for one of the most neglected and problematic urban structures--the large parking garage.

On June 17, after the winners were announced in the Art Institute's Rubloff Auditorium, Ban gave a keynote lecture on his work and its origins. In 1995, he said, when more than 6,500 Japanese lost their lives in the earthquake that shattered the city of Kobe, what resonated most strongly to him as an architect was that "people were not killed by the earthquake itself. Most people were killed by the collapse of buildings."

Six months later, when he learned that many of the victims were still living in tents, Ban responded by assembling what would become his first Paper Log House. He used plastic beer crates weighted with sand for the foundation, recycled paper tubes for the infrastructure and walls, and Teflon-fortified tenting for the roof. The houses proved to be cheap, quick to assemble, and durable.

He'd tested the construction technique in 1994 Rwanda, where genocidal civil wars had left much of the population homeless. "The United Nations gave them only a plastic sheet, four by six meters," said Ban. To create the frames, "the refugees had to cut up trees by themselves. Over two million people became refugees in Rwanda. They cut down all the trees. So the United Nations provided aluminum pipe to stop the cutting of trees. But in Africa, aluminum is a valuable material. So refugees sold all the aluminum for money, then they cut the trees again." Ban showed the refugees how to assemble the simple paper-tube-based shelters, a process he repeated after earthquakes in Turkey in 1999 and India in 2001. His Paper Church, created for Kobe Catholics as a temporary shelter after the earthquake, with a classical peristyle made of recycled paper tubes, is still in use today.

"This church became the monument of the city," said Ban. "It's all for the people."

It's the kind of monument Ban wants to keep building, and he's able to do so because he's become a master at bridging the two worlds of architecture--high and low--and making the one pay for the other. He's translated his paper-construction technology into such upscale projects as a showroom for fashion designer Issey Miyake and an enormous pavilion for Japan at Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany. He was among the architects on the THINK team, whose latticework towers almost beat out Daniel Libeskind's design for the World Trade Center site. His Picture Window House, which draws on the legacy of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in creating unobstructed, free-flowing space, was named by Architectural Record as one of its best houses in 2003.

Here in Chicago for Stop Go, Ban again found himself consorting with the architectural elite, but the concern of the jury he chaired--the often corrosive effect of the automobile on city living--touches all Chicagoans regardless of status. Few things off-load more collateral damage to a city than expressways and parking garages. They sprinkle ugliness like toxic pixie dust over the urban landscape.

The competition drew on a component of the new Central Area Plan--the first plan for downtown development produced by the city since 1958--which among other things calls for a park to be built over the Kennedy Expressway between Madison and Monroe. The Stop Go organizers asked entrants to design a 1,000-car garage for that site, including support spaces and "additional public amenities."

Ban left it to Chicago architectural icon Stanley Tigerman to announce the winners among the 12 finalists, and from his remarks it appeared that the jury was less interested in the problem of garage design itself than in the site's other possibilities. "We felt, generally, that if submissions didn't...use [the site] as a bridge, it would be a missed opportunity. So those that didn't do that were quickly eliminated," Tigerman told the crowd. "Land is valuable in Chicago, and to use valuable land for parking, we all quickly agreed, was not the world's greatest idea." The jury favored proposals that provided parkland on the surface crossing the expressway.

In a sense, all the entries stood in the shadow of the striking vision Chicago architects Ralph Johnson and Todd Snapp presented earlier this year as part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's "Invisible City" exhibition, which was also a response to the Central Area Plan. Their Kennedy Expressway Green Corridor proposed a civic "environmental gateway" to be made up of a series of inhabited bridges spanning and covering large portions of the expressway from Hubbard's Cave all the way south to the I-290 "spaghetti bowl" interchange.

On each block, a large structure of deep trusses--housing such public amenities as museums, restaurants, and shops--leaps across the expressway, bending upward to clear the existing ramps. A mat of parkland similar to the type Tigerman said his jury favored covers the surface, with "filtered tree masses" to clean the air and sculptural "wind scoops"--lightweight structures rising like cupped palms around large air holes punched into the mat's surface--designed to vent carbon dioxide emissions from the highway below. Part of the kick of Johnson and Snapp's plan was the spectacular way in which it was rendered: a futurist ecofantasy of hilly parks down the length of the expressway--the air holes giving it the feel of a surrealist golf course--and on either side a series of opulent glassy-green towers with concave facades topped with wind shields resembling the flipped-up brim of a baseball cap, meant to channel fresh air down to the surface.

Although the Stop Go competition was intended to focus on the block between Madison and Monroe, honorable mention awardees Brian Vitale and Robert Benson mirrored Johnson and Snapp's idea with a proposal to span the expressway from Van Buren to Lake with a series of airy structures covered in orange solar-collection sheeting, together capable of producing up to six gigawatts of clean power each year. Their park over the expressway was a civic plaza with "no specific program but endless possibilities." They offered a high-rise automated parking garage with a translucent ramp and a "Chicago Room" with 40-foot ceilings cantilevered over the expressway, a "jewel box" for hosting city ceremonies and events.

Reduction, one of the two first-prize winners, came from Dan Rappel, along with Isabela Gould, Kevin Schellenbach, and Jon Clark, and it's as much an exercise in social engineering as architecture. To address the Central Area Plan mandate to reduce traffic congestion they cut the number of parking spaces in half, to 500, all of them to be reserved for carpoolers and offered at below-market rates. The garage itself would be buried below grade to the east of the expressway. Over the expressway, they created a full-block public park whose surface is a sequence of "ribbons"--looking a bit like bent strips of vinyl insulation tape--placed side by side diagonal to the street grid and planted with three different mixes of grasses and wildflowers native to the Chicago area. In the architects' words, "as the ribbons engage the highway they vary in height," and the side elevations of the structures carry "revenue-generating advertising." The ribbons were designed to act as a wind machine to ventilate the garage and flush pollutants from the expressway.

The other first-place winner, Filter Park, from New York's Leven Betts Studio, was the only prizewinner that addressed the problem of the parking garage from a design perspective. It placed the garage over and perpendicular to the expressway: two thin linear structures of automated parking, 130 feet tall, with a "filtering urban garden" between them that would include a crossing for pedestrians and bicycles. Tigerman said what drew the jury to the design was that "they did a kind of Chicago building...very transparent. You saw the car in side elevation"--meaning that coming down the expressway it would be apparent from quite a distance that this was a parking lot, and as you drew closer you'd actually be able to see how many open spaces were left.

Tigerman bemoaned how, in contrast to the Levin Betts design, "so many garages try to hide the car." Well, for the unpopulated gullies of an expressway transparency may be a great idea, but in areas like River North, where sheer-walled parking garages are turning streets into deadening canyons, the parking garage presents an entirely different set of problems.

The life of the street should extend beyond the first floor, but that's the level to which many high-rise garages tend to compress it. Leaving parking floors stark and open also diminishes the surrounding streetscape. Take for example the structure on Superior at State that houses Whole Foods, or the humongous garage behind 900 N. Michigan that turns Rush Street into a back alley.

The strength of the Stop Go submissions--and of the Johnson-Snapp proposal--is the way they work to "deghettoize" the expressway belt, returning a variety of amenities to those strips of the city that have become black holes, annihilating everything but the by-products of their own existence--litter, car parts, foul air.

If there was a common weakness among the entries, it was that many of them blew past the issue of designing a good parking garage to get to the sexier task of coming up with the parks and amenities, spending more time on making the automobile disappear than on dealing with its inescapable presence. At least Ryan Moody had the wit to marry hostility toward cars with our growing addiction to gaming in his proposal for a "Garage 100," where it costs only 100 pennies to park but where ten unlucky vehicles are randomly selected each year to be irretrievably encased in glass as exhibits for a growing car museum.

There are good garages in Chicago, but they're in the distinct minority. Ralph Johnson's striking new mixed-use high-rise development Skybridge, at Madison and the Kennedy, offers one of the few new garages that don't resemble an open sore, with a sleek concrete facade along the expressway and a handsome window wall on Halsted mixing three different shades of green glass.

Some garages succeed by breaking the rules. Marina City offers 18 floors of parking in twin pancake stacks, with nothing but chicken wire bounding the open floors, but the result is a dramatic kaleidoscope of the butt ends of cars in every shape and color. The dark-glassed floors of parking at the John Hancock are redeemed by the great corkscrew ramp behind the building. Perhaps the most audacious--and witty--of all of Chicago's garages remains Stanley Tigerman's own Lake Street self-park, where the facade takes on the appearance of the front end of a touring car blown up to Bunyan-esque proportions, complete with tire segments for awnings, a top hood ornament, and enameled panels in a turquoise straight from a '57 Chevy.

Good solutions are out there, but today the imagination needed to bring them off appears to be an extravagance to most developers. Even the old solution of placing town houses around the perimeter to conceal a large parking structure within has given way to the idea of maximizing return on every inch of the lot. At the recently completed high-end high-rise the Fordham, at 25 E. Superior, the town houses are pitched atop the ten-story garage, spilling over the lip of the roof like so many doughy dollhouses. When a developer lowers his costs by filling street-level perspectives with barren ugliness, it's a tax arbitrarily imposed on all the city's residents, an uncompensated taking diminishing the value of the urban experience.

While the Central Area Plan has very little to say about good design, the realization of its goals, especially the one to "improve the quality of the pedestrian environment," is impossible without it. For that, proposals like those in "Invisible City" and the Stop Go competition must become more than an endlessly recurring Groundhog Day-style nightmare: make a brief splash, forget about it the next morning, then start all over again. A continuity of effort is needed, where each new proposal bursts through its isolating bubble and plays off and expands on those that came before.

We've proven that the creative firepower is there. Now it's up to the city to take the lead in forging the kind of public-private partnerships that go beyond the traditional approach--"let's save money now and leave ourselves no choice but to live with the results later"--to one that implements the visions of the Central Area Plan in a way that both heals and enriches the fabric of the city.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Perkins & Will and the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

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