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From parking garage to community space

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One architect’s proposal for ‘a place that would be interesting for playing’

Rendering of a parking garage being used by runners.
Turning a parking garage into a space for the unexpected.
Courtesy Sergio Lopez-Pineiro

When architect and Harvard Graduate School of Design professor Sergio Lopez-Pineiro lived in Buffalo, New York, he lived very near one particular parking structure. It was a normal parking structure, nothing out of the ordinary, except that its raison d’etre—the hospital it had once served—had been demolished a few years earlier. The parking structure was empty, its sloping ramps unpopulated, the long, flat floors on either end fallow.

“I started thinking of it as a place that would be interesting for playing,” said Lopez-Pineiro. “For a spontaneous, unregulated activity, where the unexpected happens—which is the opposite of parking, which works a little bit like a machine and is all based on standards and dimensions.”

And once the mental shift had occurred, the possibilities appeared: a space to be used for playing or jogging, sheltered from the rain in inclement weather, covered in the coldest months by a seasonally-installed fabric bubble of the sort that keeps tennis courts playable in the winter. The space would morph and shift according to the needs of the surrounding community. It would be, essentially, the urban iteration of an empty field.

Courtesy Sergio Lopez-Pineiro

The very conditions that create the demand for a parking structure ensure the utility of one like his Buffalo inspiration. Generally, he explains, “parking structures are built because there’s enough density of use around them. If that density of use generally stays, then there are people, nonprofits, community organizations, that can use these different venues.”

Intervention, Lopez-Pineiro says, would be minimal. Resurfacing the floors so that they are no longer concrete but coated with shock-absorbent material makes them appealing surfaces for both playing and running and adds very little height. And with standard ramp slopes of 5 to 6.67 percent, the surface would be appealing for runners—especially in the winter months, when the ground hardens, hills become treacherous, and slippery ice threatens fragile knees. Here, too, the qualities that make for a productive parking structure also point toward its second use.

“Transforming a parking lot which is always used in the same way, regardless of seasons, I thought it was interesting to cover the upper level with a temporary inflatable structure of the sort that are already used and are common,” he explains. “There are many things you can take advantage of, and one of them is the temporary aspect of the whole place.”

Courtesy Sergio Lopez-Pineiro

Lopez-Pineiro compares his proposal to the ground floors of large apartment blocks—particularly in big cities in the developing world—left open for adaptable use, and parking lots in small towns, which become farmers’ markets, fairgrounds, host beginnings and ends of races. The commonality, he explains, is that the design of the space itself neither impedes nor facilitates one specific activity but rather a multiplicity of them. “These spaces are used for different things,” he explains. “Markets, weddings, funerals, play, chess games — there’s a constant recirculation of different people, different generations, different interests, different moments in life, different moods that occupy the space. You look at these spaces and they have character. Sometimes columns are painted, or the floor is specific colors. They’re not super designed but there’s a certain character that’s achieved by very few economy of means.”

Though a certain aesthetic flourish—here, the gradating “rainbow” of tones along the re-textured floor—would encourage a playful interaction with the newly conceived space, it’s not necessary. To Lopez-Pineiro, the shift is more conceptual than anything else: the erasure of the traffic guidelines opening into a flexible, community-oriented space, and in tandem, the interaction of a community eager to adapt the space to its needs.

Really, he’s drawn to the structure of an empty parking lot itself. “I think they have a powerful spatial intensity,” he says. “I think it’d be interesting to, without having to rebuild or transform them in an architectural or tectonic way, just by changing the surface, change the space.”