January 9, 2011

A Playground for Cars

The Tower Place Garage is an outrageous modernist object lost amidst a core building stock of historically relevant commercial architecture. The 1967 building was constructed with the mission to attract an increasingly large suburban demographic to return downtown to support commercial activity.

Formally, the garage is an extension of the city's streets, actually appropriating pedestrian sidewalks for ramps which feed into the garage. This decision, paired with a continued lack of maintenance (and lack of funds stemming from poor sales) threatens the future of the garage. What was once a by-product of technological efficiency - a key player towards the understanding of the city as a machine for creating wealth - has been relegated by the public as a stereotypical example of ugly modernist urban renewal contributing to, rather than saving, the continued decline of the city.

Nevertheless, moving through Tower Place Garage is a delightful experience. It's perimeter is lined with delicately sloping ramps, rising one story for every pass. This arrangement allows ample space for an interior courtyard, a surprising and rarely seen element of parking garages today. The opening is bisected by a series of stacked, orderly walkways-in-the-sky feeding into a bunker-like staircase which returns the driver to the wilderness of the city sans car.

Typically walking is the best way to observe your surroundings, but the verticality of this garage, in tandem with it's repetitive structural bays and required slow speed limit generates a fantastic cinematic experience for the driver. The city unfolds behind the safety of the windshield: slow and steady, building by building, floor by floor. Oh how I wish it was possible to experience all cities this way!

Upon reaching the top of the garage, the concrete frame concludes with a simple curvature. The city below has disappeared.  All that remains is a strangely quiet space of vast expanse. It is cheaper to park on the roof.

The circular ramp represented in Google Map's cartoon-stylized plan as a simple cylinder. 

The most spectacular exit discharge sequence occurs through the core of the garage by means of a 9 story continuous spiral ramp.  Pleasantly designed to the turning radius of an average car, minimal turning is required. Such a design begs the driver into a speedy descent. This radical infrastructure requires it's own set of rules. Signs are plastered throughout the descent: 5 M.P.H., NO Pedestrians Allowed on Ramp, CAUTION, Merging Traffic! Hundreds of scrapes of every possible automobile color add a touch of unexpected decoration to an otherwise no-nonsense concrete playground for cars.  

Before you know it, you are ramping back into the city. I wanted to immediately return and drive down the ramp again, a feeling I'm sure is shared by many first-timers to the garage. Never mind that stop sign I ran towards the end. I was inflicted with a euphoric high rarely inflicted by an architectural experience. 

Ironically, contempt for the garage continues despite the fact that it's existence has allowed adjacent Tower Place mall to continue operating throughout year after year of depressing sales: “The only reason [Tower Place] hasn’t folded is because of its parking asset [...] It’s a revenue generator, and it’s been keeping the mall afloat.”

Juxtaposed against the lovingly soft pink painted concrete and unabashedly optimistic prancing of the ramps over the sidewalk (Morris Lapidus would be proud), the garage is looking more and more like some unresolved, unachieved bit of utopianism (autopianism?): a Jetson-ian vision of the city where the freedom of technologically sophisticated speeding autos trump boring, slow-paced pedestrianism.

Nevertheless, the garage is showing depressing signs of decay, while the 70,000 S.F. adjacent mall sits nearly completely vacant (foreclosure is pending for both). Things are not looking well. Rusting pipes and cracking concrete signal the end may be near for Plaza Tower Garage. To destroy this place would tremendously impact a piece of Cincinnati's history. Ugly or beautiful, the city needs places like this to remind us how the city was once used. Homogeneity is bad. Monsters are good. Buildings are to Cities as Rings are to Trees. 

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