• Located in Houston’s Theater District, the Lyric Centre Garage achieves an architectural presence not typically achieved by a parking garage. - photo by Luis Ayala, AIA

The Lyric Centre Garage shows that, while often considered a necessary urban evil, the design of a parking garage can positively impact the city that surrounds it.

Client U.S. Property Management
Architect Muñoz + Albin Architecture & Planning
Architect of Record Kirksey Architecture
Contractor Gilbane Building Company
Client Project Manager Hines
Structural and Civil Engineer/Parking Consultant Walter P Moore
MEP Engineer DBR
Landscape Architect Kudela & Weinheimer
Graphic Designer FMG
Facade Fabrication Momentum Glass

The multiple districts that make up Houston’s traditional downtown urban core have become incrementally more connected by landscape, expanded sidewalks and bike lanes, and multiple transit networks. Even so, in a car-based city like Houston, the first experience one has of a particular part of the city is often through a parking garage. Thus, how cars are stored has the potential to contribute to how visitors connect with the city.

The parking garage as a building type is best understood as winding a street into a multi-level box, and the complexity it must incorporate is often overlooked. A parking garage impacts surrounding traffic patterns, while the floor-to-floor spacing of its levels often conflicts with the rhythms of neighboring buildings. There are set rules to be followed for accommodating the efficient circulation and storage of vehicles, but occasionally, the design of a parking garage can become more than just a utilitarian exercise: It might even provide a memorable experience. 

The refinements that increase the level of service of a parking garage — a larger turning radius, wider driving aisles — are at a spatial premium and add to what are already long structural spans. The boundaries of a site can sometimes limit these enhancements, as is the case with the Lyric Centre Garage in downtown Houston. Although it sits on a limited half-block site, this garage employs innovative technology, lighting, and architectural relief to benefit the user experience. These features also create a dialogue with the street that makes this garage more significant and unexpected given its Theater District context. 

Before the 800-space Lyric Centre Garage was built to serve the 17-block Theater District, the site had previously been used as a Farmers’ Market. A 1920s Houston Sanborn fire map describes the Farmers’ Market as “Auto Parking and Vegetable Storage.” This phrase could also be used to describe the eight-level garage and its street-level food hall, which runs the length of Preston Street. 

For principal designer Jorge Muñoz, AIA, of Muñoz + Albin Architecture & Planning, the garage began with thinking about connectivity as a “volumetric exercise that relates to the Theater District.” In addition, the garage architecture “had to perform theatrically in the urban fabric as well as with the surrounding venues in the district that are at the top of their craft.” The final achievement can mostly be described as “character,” not in the superficial sense, but in the executed maneuver for a dynamic facade that effectively binds the context. 

In the 100-year history of the parking garage, the building type has struggled to find ways to harmonize with its surrounding context. There are examples, like Herzog and de Meuron’s 1111 Lincoln Road project in Miami, that broaden the definition of what a parking garage can be. At Lincoln Road, the garage is renowned for, among other things, how it acts as a landmark for one of Miami’s retail centers. Regularly spaced slabs are few and grouped to appear compressed in service of the visual relief of vertically expansive zones that accommodate unexpected elevated glazed retail islands. It is one of the few garages where parking in a garage is an experience in itself. Although it is located several states and several hundred miles away, this work of Herzog and de Meuron is valuable to the discussion of the Lyric Centre Garage because it is an example of how contextual forces can inform the architecture of a parking garage. 

The phrase “we wear our heart on our sleeve” comes to mind to describe how the exterior appearance is essential to the culture it projects. To the degree that most parking garages respond to their context, they typically do so by using surface treatments that mask the garage’s sloped parking decks. The Lyric Centre Garage refreshes this trend by treating the elevation as an exploration of mass as well as surface. The facade consists of structured, framed perforated rectangular prisms that relate to the overall proportion of the garage. The result is a collection of masses that seem organized as three major horizontal groupings that break down in relief. The technique employed at the corners is unique to each end. At Smith and Preston, the units are more planar in expression and part to reveal the transparent stair tower. At Preston and Louisiana, the units are at their maximum depth. 

Where common practice is to have surfaces uniformly lit, Muñoz employed gradated light to amplify the character of each rectangle. The projecting masses are made of white perforated metal that expresses depth by day and breathes air and light into the garage’s interior. Each unit boasts its own light source so the masses can be individually illuminated. This maneuver is consistent as a field of structures follows a field of structured light. It is a continuum of character that becomes a medium as the light changes by season and by event. Contributing to the experience are the increasingly familiar red and green lights of the parking guidance system, which help the garage achieve 100 percent utilization while making for a less frustrating search for available spaces.  

The emphasis of the upper parking area visually contrasts with the conditions at ground level. On Preston, white columns connect the perforated masses above to the ground and stand proud of the black-framed glass box that envelops the food hall below. Large-scale serrations in this glazed envelope accommodate dining tables so that they remain sheltered by a continuous canopy above. The transparent mass of the food hall slips out to the south to the interior of the plaza and uses the space between the tower and the garage as a roof terrace that overlooks the recentered “Virtuoso” sculpture. Though outside of this project, the adjacent updated tower lobby works together with the food hall to create a new, active urban floor. 

In the right hands, the nontraditional atmosphere of Houston is more promise than peril. The city is full of opportunity for sites to find new alignments and project new futures and experiences through architecture that has distinct character and yet is active and adaptable in evoking the context. At times, it offers moments to view the agency of a project through other disciplines. In theater design, the Lyric Centre Garage can perhaps be best understood as an urban “proscenium” — a structure that frames the action of the city. 

Marcus Martinez, Assoc. AIA, is a partner at Associates UltraBarrio in Houston and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston. 

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