Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Mecca of the multistorey

Coming back on the train from London Euston yesterday via an unexpected route – because of ‘overhead line damage in the Wembley area’, a phrase I have now heard enough for one lifetime – I found the suburbs of Harrow and Wealdstone, Bushey and Watford strangely enchanted in the twilight. At Watford Junction I saw a medium-sized multi-storey car park bathed in light from the setting sun and I was reminded of the late J.G. Ballard’s description of Watford as ‘the Mecca of the multi-storey car park’. Watford’s multistoreys were an inspiration for Ballard’s novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, which describes car parks as ‘inclined floors … forever meeting the events of time and space at an invisible angle’. For all its importance, parking occupies a passive place in the urban landscape. While the moving car has retained its (albeit compromised) iconography of speed, status and wealth, there is no iconography of parking. Car parks are buried underground or hidden away on side roads rather than integrated into prominent streets. Multistorey car parks, many of them built in the 1960s in the stark lines and untreated concrete of the ‘new brutalism’, are some of the least-loved buildings in Britain. Space is at a premium in the multistorey, so turning circles are tight, bays small, floor heights minimal and stairwells dark. With their cramped conditions and open sides to allow car fumes to escape, they are a strange mixture of the subterranean and the exposed. In many film and TV thrillers, the car park is an ungovernable space, where shady deals are done and crimes go unpunished. In the cult gangster movie, Get Carter (1971), for example, the eponymous anti-hero (Michael Caine) throws one of his adversaries from the upper floor of a Gateshead multistorey. The partly deserved reputation of car parks as dangerous and crime-ridden is closely connected with the poor status and scarcity of parking. When we buy a ticket to park, we are not purchasing a service but renting a small area of private land for a short period. The operator is not required to look after the vehicle or driver, and car parks will often display notices making this clear. When car parks are working to capacity, there is no good economic reason to make them any better. It is a sign of our peculiarly ambivalent approach to parking that it can be simultaneously acknowledged as a daily, near-universal obsession and dismissed as a nerdish, minority interest. The photographer Martin Parr once embarked on a project to photograph the last available space in car parks around the world. Explaining his motivation, Parr said with quiet profundity: ‘The one thing we’re all looking for in life is somewhere to park the car.’

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