Concrete Quarterly

Lasting impression: Simon Henley

The golden age of parking, and politics with the Paulistas

I once took my family on a European tour of car parks. I think they are fascinating, like a primer for buildings. As driving became more popular after the Second World War, the economics of parking changed radically, so they stripped out all of the detail and just left these skeletons. But they are also buildings for wheels rather than feet, with their oblique angles and the fluid surfaces of the ramps.

My favourite car parks are in Chicago. The Marina City towers (Bertrand Goldberg, 1961-68), were once the two tallest residential buildings in the world. The bottom 19 floors of each tower are for parking, and the ramp unwinds like a corkscrew – if you were to unravel it, it would be a kilometre long. It’s just a lovely idea, that it’s like a spring, with 40 storeys of apartments above. Immediately across the Chicago river stood Parking Facility No 1 (Shaw, Metz & Dolio, 1953, demolished 1983). Graphically it’s the most elementary structure: a series of concrete slabs with vertical cables to stop the cars falling off the edge. The elevation is simply thick horizontal lines and thin vertical lines. For me, these are two extremes of the quintessential car park: one all about fluidity, the other rigidity.

A few years ago, I took my students to São Paulo to see the work of the Paulista school, particularly Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Lina Bo Bardi and João Batista Vilanova Artigas. We landed the day that Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election, and we went to Artigas’ FAU-USP architecture school (1969). It’s a big block building, elevated off the ground, and the outside flows directly into a covered central space – you can’t lock people in or out. I think in some respects it was designed as a protest against Brazil’s military dictatorship. That afternoon we watched hundreds of people fill the building and hold a spontaneous protest, unfurling banners, singing and chanting.

Mendes da Rocha’s Mube sculpture museum (1988) is another example of how the Paulista school make something powerful simply by covering outside space. A lot of it is underground so it’s really just a landscape of concrete strata, but one extraordinary bridge spans most of the site. While we were in São Paulo, we met someone who had collaborated with Mendes da Rocha, and it was like turning the clock back 60 years to a more ambitious, socially motivated architecture. That seems to be a consistent theme with good concrete architecture – it has served societies at a point of change very well.

Simon Henley is principal at Henley Halebrown, and author of The Architecture of Parking (Thames & Hudson, 2007) and Redefining Brutalism (RIBA Publishing, 2017)


Photos 1 , 3, 4. Simon Henley; 2. Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections