Despite their strict functional requirements, parking garages have given rise to a surprising number of typological inventions. There are continuous ramp ones, split-level ones, flat ones with an external spiral, corkscrew ones. The parking garage is a straitjacket that allows multiple solutions, one that inspires creative freedom precisely because there is none.
— Reinier de Graaf, “Four Walls and a Roof”
It has been said many times that Houston is “overparked.” By some counts, the city has 30 parking spaces per resident. And, while Houston is famous for its lack of zoning, the local building code does mandate minimum parking requirements for new development, a policy that has significantly influenced the built environment. Rather than a city shaped in response to human proportions and bipedal limitations, Houston’s form has been designed and constructed to accommodate cars. The same can be said of most cities in Texas — and, indeed, of most urban development after World War II (though it must be noted that impromptu favelas and slums, pedestrian zones by virtue of their residents’ poverty, now make up the globe’s fastest-growing urban typology).
The prevalence of parking in Houston has made it impossible for architects and their clients to ignore it or relegate it to an engineering exercise. If people have been turned into hermit crabs that must find a place to park their carapace in order to run their daily errands, then it would be awfully nice if that place offered more than just storage. The following essay surveys 10 Houston parking facilities, new and old, that give their users and their neighbors a little something extra.
Parking is at such a premium in Houston that garages often outlast the buildings they were erected to serve. This one was designed and built in tandem with Foley’s block-square department store just across Travis Street. Completed in 1947 and designed by the Houston architect Kenneth Franzheim, the complex was equipped with a pneumatic tube so that, as customers bought items from the store’s various departments, they would not need to carry their purchases around with them. Instead, the packages would be shot from the location of the sales transaction to the parking exit, and an attendant would load them into the customers’ cars as they departed. Foley’s was the first department store in Houston to build its own parking garage. The current owners, who tore down Foley’s, did a cheap repainting of the face brick, making the garage look much drabber than was originally the case.
The Shamrock Hotel Garage
Another vestigial remain, this garage was designed and built in 1949 in conjunction with Texas wildcatter Glen McCarthy’s 1,100-room Shamrock Hotel, which, somewhat counterintuitively for the time, was built three miles southwest of downtown. Both the hotel and the garage were designed by Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick. Although the development’s restaurants, club, and lounges were located at the base of the hotel, the ballroom-convention center was located in the garage. This was the first multi-story parking garage unit in Houston outside downtown. Although the Texas Medical Center demolished the hotel 31 years ago, it retained and still uses the garage and its function rooms.
1311 Louisiana Street
Sometimes, garages just want to fit in. Designed by Gensler, the 16-story 1311 Louisiana Street garage (2015) is an amenity-rich high-rise for cars that is of a kind with the slick office towers that are its neighbors. The 1,600 parking spaces are accessed by a double-helix, one-way ramp system that climbs two floors per revolution, accelerating the time it takes for users to reach their space. A glassed-in, air-conditioned vertical circulation core at the corner of Polk and Louisiana streets features four high-speed Schindler elevators and a staircase that overlooks the street. Security guards patrol the well-lit facility regularly, and there is an on-site professional car detailing service. At the ground floor, there are a parking office, restrooms, and 3,000 sf of retail space.
805 Franklin Street
At other time, garages have no choice but to blend in with the crowd. Located in the Main Street Market Square Historic District, the 10-story Franklin Street garage (2018) had to assume a form that was sympathetic to its century-old neighbors, which included Magnolia Ballroom, the Cotton Exchange building and the Bayou Lofts. Designed by Powers Brown Architecture and built on land that had been a surface parking lot since 196s, the 229-space structure is outfitted with a beige brick facia on the first two levels, brown painted precast panels above, and aluminum frames that mimic the rhythm of the surrounding punched-window built fabric. Stair towers at each corner, enclosed in chain-link fencing, are capped by the overhanging cornices. A two-story-high “PARKING” sign attached to one corner explicitly states the building’s function, should anyone mistake it for a 19th-century warehouse.
Lyric Center Garage
Some parking structures cloak their identity entirely. The 800-space Lyric Center Garage (2018), designed by Munoz + Albin, is one of them. Serving the Lyric Center office building during the day and the theater district after hours, it is clad in a patchwork assembly of white corrugated metal panels with a 30-percent perforation that ventilates the parking decks and admits spotty daylight. At night, color-changing LED fixtures animate the white surfaces, and at one corner of the fourth floor, a cantilevered glass-enclosed box provides an exhibition space for art or branding. Parking is on two below-grade levels and eight above grade, with the ground floor given over to Lyric Market, a 31,000-sf retail-and-food court that spills out onto a public plaza anchored by David Adickes’ 36-ft-tall sculpture of a cello player, “Virtuoso.”
Cambridge Office Building Parking Garage
The Rice University parking structure is also demure about its infrastructural identity to the point of shrouding itself in fig leaves. Designed by Philadelphia architecture firm KieranTimberlake (which also designed the administrative office building that is attached) the seven-story, 450-space garage is wrapped in trapezoidal, coated PES tensile mesh panels printed with a pattern of creeping fig vine leaves. The architect wanted the volume to blend in with the campus’ evergreen oak tree canopy. Structureflex, which fabricated the screens, employed a UV ink to prevent fading. The tensile mesh is stretched over an aluminum tension and steel tube structure that peels away from the underlying concrete slabs in places, giving the whole a sculptural presence and opening reveals that improve ventilation. Levels one through five are outfitted with electric vehicle charging stations.
Manheim Texas Hobby
Perennially front page news, flooding is a worsening problem in Houston that is aggravated by the city’s untold acres of impervious paving, much of it forming surface parking lots. This constructed strata at the upper layer of the earth’s crust sheds rain quickly into the already-overtaxed drainage system. Manheim, the world’s largest automobile auction company, has taken recent steps with its 165-acre Hobby Airport facility to refrain from making the problem worse, adding 15.25 acres of parking that is paved with a permeable system. The company used TrueGrid, a local manufacturer that makes a paving grid from recycled high-density polyethylene that is infilled with gravel or grass. The system claims to be 100 percent permeable, capable of absorbing and detaining stormwater instantly, and able to reduce the heat island effect associated with asphalt or concrete.
The Menil Collection Parking Lot
The Menil Collection’s parking lot (2015) also takes the sponge approach, but with more concessions to the user experience. Designed by New York landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which is working on an overhaul of the entire 30-acre Menil campus, the parking lost is also a garden planted with 80 new trees and 19,000 sf of ground cover with perennials. Visitors can follow a shaded pathway along a row of live oaks that already existed on the site. Stormwater runs off the concrete paving into swales planted with irises and chalk maples. Excess water is collected in an 8,000-cubic-ft cistern and is used for site irrigation. The lot was given a “special parking area” designation by the Houston City Council, allowing the Menil to provide fewer spaces than the code normally requires — 1.8 spaces per 1,000-sf of gallery, bookstore, and classroom, as opposed to three spaces — and to locate them four times farther away from the building than usual.
Building Eats Garage
The Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation
We’ve been hearing about the death of the parking space for a while now but, until ride sharing and autonomous vehicles really make strides in taking over personal mobility, in Texas the garage will remain an essential component of any significant development. Nonetheless, here is a building eating a garage: the Lake|Flato-designed conservation center at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2018). The architects transformed half of the museum’s Binz Street garage into a 20,000-sf facility that consolidates the conservation departments under one roof. The addition is defined by three east-west oriented sheds that capture northern light. Flat-roofed bays between the sheds contain support spaces for the studios. While the museum did lose some parking area, the space will be more than regained with new subterranean garages beneath the Steven Holl-designed Glassell School and Nancy and Rich Kinder Building.
Paint It Bright
Sky Dance, by C. Finley
One consequence of Houston’s Swiss-cheese-like development pattern (a modality that may in large part be attributed to cars) is that there are a lot of blank walls. In recent years, more and more of these surfaces have become host to brightly colored murals. Such is the case at 1415 Louisiana Street, a 43-story tower designed by Nasr/Penton & Associates and 3D/International and completed in 1983. It was originally planned as a twin tower, but its second phase never materialized. In its current condition, the in-building 391-space parking garage faces a surface parking lot with a 130-ft-tall, 230-ft-wide wall. The CEO of the anchor tenant, WEDGE Group, recently commissioned a mural for the surface from New York-and-Rome-based artist C. Finley. Her subject — three Houston Ballet dancers in mid leap — is rendered in motley on a field of sky blue. At nearly 30,000 sf, it is the city’s largest mural. How fitting that it should be on a parking garage.
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.