Traffic-Stopping Parking Structures

Dark, dingy, even unsafe, car parks are probably the last place you'd expect to find innovative architecture. But some defy expectations

Like gas stations and strip malls, parking structures seem more likely to be the unhappy grunt work of junior architects than the creations of master designers. And yet, among the millions of drab concrete garages throughout the world, a few stand out—replete with all the hallmarks of great architecture.

Few and far between, these wonders are sprinkled around the globe in locations from Paris to Santa Monica. These buildings—green parking garages, innovative automobile dealerships, and futuristic gas stations—form a network of buildings fit for admiration as well as for parking your car.

Some of these are run-of-the-mill parking garages that on first glance look anything but interesting. The Civic Center Parking Structure in Santa Monica, Calif., designed by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners, is a stylish monument in the heart of a city that nurtured America's car culture. The local architects designed a relatively conventional inner structure, which they transformed with a skin of multicolored glass panels and stainless-steel mesh surrounding the corner stairwells. The space is immensely eye-catching, while on a purely practical level, it provides about 900 much-needed municipal parking spots for the city's downtown area.

Other striking examples include the Cardova Parkade in Vancouver, B.C., and the Nutwood Parking Facility in Fullerton, Calif. The former is a massive, $28 million revitalization project that incorporates fragments of the city's old bridges, conceived by Henriquez Partners Architects. The latter is shrouded in a so-called green screen, a canopy of bamboo and flowering vines that wraps around the structure and generates oxygen throughout the building. That project was created by the Los Angeles firm AC Martin.

A Jewel of an Auto Showroom

Automobile dealerships are routinely designed to showcase and store cars as attractively as possible. But some put more emphasis on cutting-edge architecture than others. Automaker Citroën (PEUGY), for example, completed its C42 building in the heart of Paris early last year. The glass-encrusted showroom, which serves as a kind of brand hall and museum, stands out like an asymmetrical jewel on the Champs-Elysées.

Mercedes-Benz (DAI) and Toyota Motor (TM) also have unique dealerships around the world. The Nunawading Toyota dealership in Melbourne, Australia, is housed in a futuristic structure, designed by Melbourne's Gray Puksand and Michael Avramidis. The building's trapezoidal roof makes it look more like a spaceship than a car dealership. Likewise, Mercedes-Benz's flagship store in San Francisco is a study in experimental materials and dramatic shapes, including a two-story showroom with a cylindrical glass tower facing the street. Completed in 2006, it was designed by the local firm Huntsman Architectural Group.

Defying Expectations

Other buildings don't quite fit into neat categories. The Thiais Bus Center Administrative Building in Thaias, France, is neither a parking garage nor a dealership. The building, which was designed by the Paris-based duo Emmanuel Combarel and Dominique Marrec, is a nexus for that city's bus drivers. In a hodge-podge of industrial and modern architecture, the building alternates between heavy concrete forms and large glass windows—to radical effect.

The Helios House in Los Angeles, sponsored by British Petroleum (BP), is an experiment intended to put forth ideas about the future of gas stations. Although the station does sell gas, it also attempts to be green. Designed by the Boston architects at Office dA, it incorporates energy-efficient lights, a green roof of native plants, and a water-collection system that treats contaminated waste water and redistributes it to irrigate on-site greenery. The station's unique metallic skin is made of prefabricated, recyclable, stainless-steel panels.

These structures prove that not all car parks are doomed to be bland, boring boxes. And what's also clear is what often distinguishes drab from fab—even where parking garages are concerned—is the support of a well-resourced corporation or municipality.

For a closer look at some of the world's best places to park, check out the slide show.

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