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Could Europe's Empty Parking Garages Become Housing?

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For architect Alfredo Brillembourg, these open buildings have impressive potential

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, architect Alfredo Brillembourg wonders what to do with unused parking garages.

On his travels, architect Alfredo Brillembourg, founder of Zurich-based Urban Think Tank, noticed something. In Bangkok, he saw a parking structure with five open stories of space for cars crowned by a two-story block of apartments. In Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, he visited an empty parking garage that had become a de facto homeless shelter for several dozen men displaced from their homes by flooding, drug abuse, and more. In Caracas, he was struck by the beauty of a parking garage with a façade overgrown with tropical plants, providing a florid scrim for the interior; the garage’s owners had opened a cafeteria with an atmosphere that belied its setting.

All of which got Brillembourg thinking about the adaptable potential of parking garages. Despite central locations in cities, many garages see less and less use as increasing emphasis is placed on urban collective transit and alternatives to cars. Particularly in this moment in time, as Europe struggles to house the millions of refugees currently making their way across its borders, Brillembourg emphasizes the potential of the many near-empty parking structures he says he sees in European cities. As he puts it, this proposal "is not what we imagine should happen, it’s what’s really happening and needs to be better designed."

A parking garage is an open building, and Brillembourg and his team see specific advantages to that. Open buildings both adapt more readily to a user’s needs and encourage that user’s participation, which is particularly important when it comes to public housing. Dutch architect John Habraken’s 1961 book Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing suggested that rather than providing fully finished public housing, the state provide infrastructure on top of which residents might finish their own housing.

"People know how to build their own houses," explains Brillembourg. "What they don’t have is a good floor and a good roof. That’s what they need. We can deploy a kit of parts [and then] we can make rules, depending on how much variation we give them."

Parking structures provide an eminently adaptable existing infrastructure. They are central and sturdy. Internal reconfiguration wouldn’t need to consider supporting walls, and a structure’s open sides would provide ventilation and natural light. They’re also modular: "You can rent a parking space, you can rent two or three. Depending on your expandability, you can expand and improve," says Brillembourg.

Urban Think Tank proposes public services on the roof—sports facilities, a playground, a health clinic, or urban agriculture—and other key services on the ground floor. Housing would be arrayed along upper ramps. Parking structures equipped with retail space would adapt easily to cafés, laundry rooms, or social areas.

In light of both the ongoing refugee crisis and increasing efforts across the continent to decrease the use of cars within urban areas, parking structures seem like sheer opportunity. "We know the car is going to be an obsolete object, so we can take parking structures and turn them into anything," he says.

And the benefits for displaced communities would be many. The structures would accommodate growing families and increasing prosperity, and would maximize the possibilities for residents to acquire that prosperity. Rather than being housed, as in the best of scenarios, in big blocks of housing outside of the city, these structures would offer temporary homes poised to maximize integration and stability. Central locations would place inhabitants near jobs, existing city infrastructure, and social structures. City governments, Brillembourg says, could reimburse owners for use of the structures via tax benefits, decreasing cost and offering an appealing short-term solution for a less-used garage. And then, he says, "[the area around these structures] could become real, multi-layered city blocks."

That Port-of-Spain parking lot, in which an enclosed room was crammed full of bunk beds and sleeping platforms were constructed in the open, has since been the subject of an in-depth proposal by UT-T. Currently under consideration for funding by the Interamerican Development Bank, it would add many of the services mentioned here to the structure.

But though housing is a logical use for these structures, they could just as easily become gyms, community centers, and much more. The point, according to Urban Think Tank, is to consider the existing city, its opportunities as well as its changing requirements, before building anew. Long before Mansard roofs were a visual staple of Parisian architecture, Brillembourg points out, they were implemented in order to add more usable space to existing buildings.

"Instead of adding new programming," he says, "reinventing the city we already have is the way to the future."