The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Botanic Gardens Garage, Glasgow

A multi-storey? You’re trying to protect a multi-storey car park? In this day and age when that most spectacular of garages in Gateshead—Owen Luder’s Trinity Square car park in Gateshead is facing imminent demolition and the impact that cars have had on our environment is seen as more or less universally bad, trying to save a parking garage is a particularly tough job.

Much of our experience of the developed world is mediated via the car. The human condition as we know it today would not be possible without motor vehicles. Cars have given us unprecedented freedom of movement, and a sense of safety and isolation. They have also played a largely unrecognised part in women’s emancipation—all good reasons why it is important to preserve the buildings that chart the development of the car and are built to accommodate it—including filling stations, parking garages, factories and showrooms.

There has been surprisingly little published on the history of any of these building types John Margolies has made a beautiful photographic survey in his aptly titled book Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station (1993) in which he traces the history and design of the filling station in the US in its earliest days—but this is short on analysis and has mostly US examples. Just recently Simon Henley’s The Architecture of Parking (see p27) has done much to celebrate the best parking garages—but his focus is primarily on very recent ones.

What are the earliest examples of each of these building types and in which countries are they? How many still exist intact? The term ‘garage’ adds to the confusion—it can denote anything from a filling station, a domestic or a commercial place to park your car, a workshop, or a hybrid of any of these.
This lack of contextual understanding has been a particular problem when evaluating a Category B listed parking garage in Glasgow scheduled for demolition earlier this summer. Built in 1912 the Botanic Gardens Garage had remained in operation as a place to park cars until last year. It’s architect was David Valentine Wyllie who, aside from building tenements and factories, was experienced in the design of warehouses and stables. The garage was his last building and can be considered the culmination of his prolific career.

It is a purpose built steel structure with an ornate Beaux Arts style glazed cream and soft green faience façade that is punctured by large arches of glazing. Its design references are to warehouse architecture—and indeed the word ‘garage’ in use since 1902 was adapted from the French verb ‘garer’ meaning ‘to shelter goods’—or in other words ‘to warehouse’.

Parking on the streets was not permitted in the UK at that time and the paintwork on cars was in any case highly sensitive to weather and sun and had to be protected. But not many purpose built parking garages were constructed before the First World War. There were just not that many private cars around and most were sheltered in stables, coach houses or outbuildings, or in the towns and cities, in former livery stables.

Possibly the earliest multi-storey parking structure was built by Auguste Perret in 1905 in Paris—the Garage de la Société Pontieu-Automobiles. In the United States there were the facilities of the Chicago Automobile Club dating from 1907 by Marshall & Fox and the Palmer & Singer garage by Marvin & Davis that opened in 1908—the year that mass production of the automobile was inaugurated by Henry Ford with his introduction of the Model T.

While The Botanic Gardens Garage is not Glasgow’s first purpose built parking structure it is definitely the oldest example left in the city and possibly even unique in a nationwide and international context. In Scotland there is no other known comparable example still in existence. We have only been able to find three listed multi-car parking garages that are not part of private estates in England: The very early purpose built Rothbury Motor Garage in Northumberland dating from 1913, and Grade II listed is still single storey. And while it dates from the same era as the Botanic Gardens Garage it is far less sophisticated in its concept and design. Much later come the Bluebird Garage (formerly Carlyle Garages) in King’s Road, Chelsea, built in 1924 and Grade II listed. It is a parking garage with residential accommodation for the chauffeurs that were still very much a part of motoring. And from 1929, the Lex Garage in Brewer Street in Soho that we successfully recommended for listing in 2001. This may be the only multi-storey car park remaining from that period.

Of course, in a multi-storey parking garage the problem of how to get the cars from one level to the next had to be addressed. There are really only two options: the lift, which is more space efficient, or the ramp. The ramp eventually becomes the dominant option—for pragmatic reasons. This highly functional parking structure that is in effect acting like an extension to the road is anticipated as early as 1925 by Konstantin S Melnikov’s design for a car park over the river Seine in Paris. But it takes until 1948 and Robert Law Reed’s car park in Miami until the ramp determines the form and brings about instant recognition of the parking structure as an architectural form in its own right. The parking garage is really a ramp that services decks of parking bays. This is perhaps the most sincere type of garage—it is a building that has shed its façade and is determined purely by the movement though it. But in the case of the Botanic Gardens garage it is the façade that is of interest both for in its intrinsic beauty and as a reminder of the warehouse origin of this building type.

It should not be too difficult to find a new use for this building. The Botanic Gardens Garage is located in an affluent part of this bustling city in direct proximity to fashionable bars and restaurants. In London the Grade II listed Bluebird Garage has been a highly successful adaptive reuse for a parking garage, so why not in Glasgow too?

While the first hurdle in saving this historic building has been successfully overcome and the planning application for demolition was turned down, we have increasingly become aware of the exceptional rarity of this still intact parking structure. This garage is extraordinary in an international context. It not only reminds us of the exceptional wealth of Glasgow at a time when cars were still considered an extravagant luxury, but that there is a starting point for every architectural form. We are proposing the upgrading of this amazing structure to Category A.

Eva Branscome