Taking a Concrete Dump

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Have you ever thought of car parks as objects of aesthetic delight? Have you ever thought of car parks at all? Walter Grumpius thinks quite a lot about a couple of local car parks, and not much at all about plenty of others …

The immediate inspiration for this article came when, at an art-related visit to The Tetley in Leeds, I found myself staring over acres and acres of desolate waste. On the far side was a Chicagoesque horizon that, in the mid-morning sunlight, soared quite heroically – though you should give these things twenty years and see if they’ve turned into slums in the meantime.

When I asked the helpful receptionist at The Tetley for the whereabouts of the nearest cash point, he gestured towards the Chicago on the distant skyline across a tarred and fenced vastness, which it obviously pained his poetic soul to have to describe as a car park rather than, say, an agora.

There are few things more desolating in the built – or crumbling – environment than acreage-guzzling open-air car parks; the ghastly dispiriting forecourts of supermarkets and multiplexes, of retail precincts and all the other hyperinflated theatres of contemporary commerce. Or – as in Leeds, along the south bank of the River Aire – the vast burial grounds of demolished businesses for which no reviving breath inspires new life.

Through a law of inertia as inevitable as Newton’s, these hectares of ghost-laden ex-industrial vacuity become car parks. In many ways these spaces are just as dispiriting when full as they are empty. I struggle to locate the beauty in the design of cars but feel that, as with athletes, their special talent lies in motion; there is something in the fleetness, in the exercise of purpose that transforms into grace. But at rest they’re just empty tin cans, giant pieces of junk littering the streets. Like sewage, cars are necessary and inevitable but, once evacuated, are best kept out of sight.

Most towns and cities provide multi-storey garages for this. Herein lie opportunities for architects to design structures that could enhance and glorify the cityscape. There is no reason, beyond paucity of imagination, why multi-storey car parks should not be designed to lift the heart and spirit of passers-by just as much as cathedrals or museums. Most aren’t of course. They are rude concrete stacks, blunt and ungracious slang in the midst of a city’s polite discourse.

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Take for example the Hall Ings car park in Bradford. It is as though the designer has been caught short and taken a concrete dump in the middle of the city. The only possible conclusion is that it was intended as a calculated visual insult to Lockwood and Mawson’s glorious City Hall across the road. There used to be an unsightly connecting bridge from the other side of Hall Ings which thankfully was demolished a few years ago. One hopes this was an aesthetic decision but I rather suspect the Council feared compensation claims from relatives of pedestrians who, overwrought by the sheer hideousness of it all, might throw themselves off.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. For proof one need look no further than one of the finest buildings erected in Leeds in the 20th century, the magnificent Woodhouse Lane Car Park. Its recent refurbishment has only added to its stature. Concrete had had a bad press but this is not the fault of the material. It is not concrete that is responsible for the dumber outcrops of brutalism, it is the architects and planners. That this is the case is shown in the creative and subtle design on Woodhouse Lane. Horizontal lines are interrupted imaginatively so that the viewer is not bullied by an insistently unbroken profile. This is a sympathetic rather than a brutal giant. In a sense its size is essential to the realisation of its vision and is not just a piece of senseless municipal pomposity and tastelessness.

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Also, a test for any building, it looks just as fabulous from the sides and the rear. At the back is an exquisitely cantilevered exit gangway which proves that strength is not incompatible with delicate beauty. The building looks almost as though it is floating, such is its effect of lightness; an impression particularly strong at night when generous lighting lends it the impression of an ocean liner. And the much maligned concrete looks and feels wonderful, the generous aggregate – both light and dark for variety – is immensely tactile and, dare one say, almost kissable.

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The second example of a lovely multi-storey car park – the concept seems almost an oxymoron – eschews the cliché of concrete altogether. This is the garage built as part of the Victoria Mill development on the riverside in Shipley.

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It is a structure of intriguing and attractive paradoxes. The aluminium walls give an impression of lightness and yet are as strong as millstone grit. The use of the space seems at once both economical and generous, which is another way of suggesting that the proportions are perfect. The Victoria Mill residential development as a whole is a very successful blend of the 19th century mill with sympathetically-designed 21st century blocks of flats. The counterpoint of styles harmonises well and the multi-storey garage fits into the context perfectly. It is not an impertinent and unwelcome intruder but a welcome part of the community.

The Woodhouse Lane and Victoria Mill car parks demonstrate that, with care, the simple stack for cars can be an adornment to a town rather than an eyesore, an opportunity for creativity, wit and grace rather than a cheap, dingy and unimaginative public convenience.

Walter inserted a huge PS about the new Victoria Quarter which I thought deserved a post in itself, so I decided to leave it out and ask if he’d expand on his opinion separately. It’s an interesting one. Ed.

10 comments

  1. With the vast tracts required by carparks, it is entirely necessary that they be well designed and that when empty, should not be abandoned fields of concrete.

    Your writing carries shades of William Gibson and Jonathan Meades,

  2. The Moor car park in Sheffield is nice, as is the ‘Cheese Grater’ Car park also in Sheffield, neither with exposed concrete externally.

  3. Car parks I like (or liked)

    the Stack-o-matic in Bond Court – shortly to be a boutique hotel

    Cheese grater Sheffield as above – its the mesh door and the psychedelic lighting that sets it apart. To say nothing for the disorienting spiral entrance/exit.

    Preston Bus Station (partly a car park I believe)

    Owen Luder’s Gateshead (Get Carter) car park and market.

    Needless to say ideas of prettying up urban car parks are not my thing – they should be better seen as sets for noir films.

    Locations for grubby sex, violent death and convenient suicide. Fast escapes in stolen cars through broken barriers with the late night attendant either in the know or off his head.

    The place will be ill-lit and smell as it is used – as a urinal.

    In other words a bit like Woodhouse Lane before it was done up and securitised (hopefully it will soon deteriorate) or like Hall Ings is now.

    Outdoor car parks should be un-tarred and have limited or no lighting. So deals can be struck between slowly moving cars.

    If you park at night don’t expect your car to be there (or in one piece) when you return

    If you pay to park it will be to some scammer nothing to do with the site.

    Interesting try Grumpius but I think you are on the wrong track with this one.

    regards

    Sour

  4. Often the wrong track ends up somewhere more interesting than the right track; not necessarily in this case, I acknowledge. But I shall not stop taking it if it looks like it might be going somewhere I’ve not been before. Not being a car driver I notice rather than use car parks and thought it might be interesting to talk about them from the point of view of a sightseer rather than a motorist.

  5. Sure is interesting to talk about the unusual and unexpected but when you use terms like “wit” and “grace” I develop a certain tenderness in the stomach.

    Perhaps we simply prefer difference kinds of urbanism.

    A wet winters night in deserted downtown Bradford is so nostalgic for me of rust-belt America that I simply yearn for the scent of the Hall Ings car park and the nervous wait at the pay machine.

    Infinitely more enticing than street cafes, artisan brew houses or the Arena corporate entertainment experience.

    regards

    sour

  6. “The only possible conclusion is that it was intended as a calculated visual insult to Lockwood and Mawson’s glorious City Hall across the road.”

    Great piece.

    It would be good to hear your thoughts on the Victoria Quarter development – the car park proposed for phase 1 looks like the architects have used the opportunity for creativity you mention much more than the architects of some of the other city-centre multi-stories did, which is welcome.

    I’m saddened to hear that the old Lyon’s Factory is to be lost for yet another car park as part of the Victoria Quarter phase 2 plans (http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/latest-news/top-stories/anger-over-demolition-plan-for-landmark-leeds-site-1-6579169).

    I thought we’d learnt our lessons about such things. The comments in the evening post article suggest Leeds folk have little love for the building but I think there’s a character and texture old spaces like this have that new builds can never achieve, so by demolishing them we lose something we can never have again.

    When renovated, spaces like this attract a different type of vendor and creativity that don’t suit the bland, sanitised lines of today’s shopping centres. There are many (more forward looking) cities in Europe who’ve turned old buildings with less character than this into affordable, independent, vibrant and creative spaces; something which Leeds would benefit from as we court the usual mega-brands into another shopping centre.

    To lose it for a car park seems especially short-sighted.

  7. I haven’t read much about Phase 2 but will check out your link this evening, Matt.

    I thought there was a big enough car park there already but I guess they (cars) are insatiable. Can’t weep tears over the Provident House Building but the Lyon’s Factory is a different matter. Was it a Chinese supermarket in one of its more recent incarnations?

  8. I meant to add, Matt, that the artist’s projection for the Victoria Gate car park next to the John Lewis building looks quite intriguing though the writers of the accompanying blurb seem a tad confused as to the source of inspiration; one line being that the twisted fin design is influenced by weaving, another that it derives from wind turbines. If Leeds has to have yet more car parks (and it would seem it has to), then rather some creativity goes into the garaging than just knocking down a currently disused factory and parking on the cleared acreage.

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