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Just as Nature abhors a vacuum, entrepreneurs always manage to find new uses for underexploited space. I’ve written before about how excess ground floor space in Dubai tower blocks is admirably colonised by convenience stores, dry cleaners and laundries. [c.f. Corner Stores]

In evenings in the temperate months, restaurants and shisha cafés move outside and enliven the spaces between towers. People here eat late, and it’s not uncommon for people to spend six hours around the same table, eating and drinking, smoking and talking. This agreeable custom is facilitated by valet parking that removes the inconvenience of finding a place to park. The irony is that street life happens not because of pedestrians but because of cars.

One local shopping mall features outdoor streets lined with shops very much true to Victor Gruen’s other concept of an “outdoor mall” as walkable town centre. Then, as now, the problem was how to get people to it.

As then, the solution is to provide car parking but now it’s underneath the whole shebang, in all its 8m x 8m colour-coded column gridded glory.

Car parks do more than simply support the main event by parking the cars that bring the customers. If you live in an apartment building in Dubai, for example, you’ll almost certainly contract the building’s car washer to wash your car three times a week. This isn’t as indulgent as it sounds for even a few drops of rain will dump airborne sand on your car and windscreen. More importantly, periodically moistening the wipers will prevent the rubber from becoming brittle and scratching your windscreen when you need them to be wiping it. Shopping malls and all other places where large numbers of cars park will have car washers so you can go and do other things and come back to a cleaned car.

Other businesses are setting up shop in car parks and offering the same convenience of not having to wait. The first fixed service to appear was booths to tint car windows and apply vehicle wraps. They typically occupy well-trafficked positions close to entrance and exit ramps where parking might be obstructive and/or risky.

This pet grooming store allows customers to park and do whatever inside the mall and, on the way back, collect their groomed pet.

Dubai Mall car park has a police station but car/accident related services are one of many general police ones. Once I lost my wallet and received a phone call from this police station to come collect it.

Why this noodle bar is on level zero of Dubai Mall parking is a mystery but, having seen some of the incongruous places noodle bars exist in Tokyo, it’s not odd to find one in the bowels of a car park. It can be accessed from the adjacent light well that serves as staff smoking area. I’ve never seen it not busy.

I may be wrong, but I seem to remember this space (opposite the police station) once housing something that looked like a coffee shop. It takes a certain kind of store to succeed in a car park.

Those that do tend to perform services that would normally involve waiting but this next store (at a mall called Citywalk) is a base for filling and distributing the balloons sold by vendors in the outdoor above-ground mall. It’s located at the bottom corner of an entrance ramp in a spot not suited for parking but very suitable for the vendors to walk in and replenish their wares.

The mall gives back to the car park. This flower store occupies a corner en-route to two pedestrian exits. You might be more likely to buy a potted orchid if you didn’t have far to carry it.

Extracting maximum value from the pedestrian traffic in car parks occurs naturally because car parks are going to exist wherever long-term investment in public transport infrastructure isn’t at the levels of, say, Hong-Kong where apartment buildings above shopping malls and train stations are a standard urban typology. [c.f. Living Above Shops] Until we completely discard the dream of private car-accessed suburbia, we’re doomed to propagate it, downscaling it and compacting it and finding satisfaction with representations of it along the way. It’s probably a process we have to work through until some critical level of absurdity is reached.

Miami’s Porsche Design Tower effectively replicates the vehicle access and parking conditions of suburbs. Aimed squarely at the overmonied 1%, the building was never intended as a prototype. It touched the internet heavily as much aspirational internet content does, serving to remind us of our place.

PDT is an extreme case but apartment buildings in cities not blessed with fully-functioning and integrated public transportation are always going to have to balance the desirability of a location with the convenience of accessing it. One Dubai solution has parking in dedicated buildings behind the main ones. Going home thus involves perhaps five or six levels of ramps, walking perhaps half the length of the car park either to a bridge linking to the main building, or to a car park passenger elevator to take you to that bridge.

Making the car park into a podium for the tower gets cars that much closer to the front door, reduces the walking and eliminates the transfer but is wasteful of the lower levels unless there’s a compensating height premium. Often there is and getting the apartments further up in the air isn’t a bad thing. More often than not, it’s just expedient construction and efficient site usage. It does the job, but produces buildings with a particular look.

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The intertwined problems of locational desirability and convenience have always been seen in terms of how to park cars close to where people might like to be. This is how I saw it when I tried to improve upon Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1973 Pasadena Heights.

It is a rare example of an inclined mat building and has pedestrian access from both front and rear. Residents must park at the uppermost and lowermost site entry points and walk to their apartment a maximum of three floors either up or down. [c.f. The Building is Not Trying to be a Mountain]

My 2016 reworking parked two cars outside each entrance door at the deepest positions in both plan and section where they didn’t occupy marketable viewspace. There are still a couple of problems I intend to iron out but the proposal is proof of concept for a mat building on a one-in-eight incline. [c.f. The Mat Building]

Just as mine was a reworking of Kikutake’s Pasadena Heights, PLOT=BIG+JDS’s 2008 Mountain Dwellings is a rework of Glen Howard Small’s 1983 Turf Town but with more explicit car parking.

I can’t help feeling it could have been done better. This section shows how car parking is neither directly adjacent to apartments nor directly below. Glassed access corridors survey ramps across three-story voids necessitated by the inclined elevator.

The problem is that the problems of terracing apartments, parking cars and accessing apartments have all been solved separately. The podium elevates the apartments but without any of its advantages for access. A statement at the time said “The residents of the 80 apartments will … have the possibility of parking directly outside their homes.” Here, directly means a choice of either three flights of triangular stairwell and an access corridor, or an inclined elevator and two access corridors. Either way, 480 car parking spaces for 80 apartments seems excessive.

Terracing apartments on flat land is likely to produce an oversized car park because the area of an apartment [which is a function of site dimensions, number of apartments and angle of terracing] is still many times larger than the amount of space required to park, say, two cars per apartment and the ramps to access them all. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of an inclined terrace on a car park podium. The problem is finding the dimensions and number of storeys that give the optimum proportion of car park volume to apartment area (having sky above). How to thread ramps through that volume is another matter but not a separate problem.

Perhaps we’re going the wrong way about it, and should be thinking not of how to get car parking closer to living space but how to get living space closer to car parking. Shopping malls may be ahead of the curve as retail space is the most seductive type of space we’re likely to encounter. On Dubai Mall’s west side, one section of the multi-storey car park had alternate floors removed and the others extended to create additional retail space. Malls get extended all the time and there’s nothing out of the ordinary where the truncated car park meets the glamorous retail makeover and extension.

The mall called Bur Juman opened in Dubai in 1991 on the corner where Sheikh Zayed Road meets the old centre of Bur Dubai. When I first visited in 2006 it was still a fashionable mall and a place to go to. That was still true in 2008 when I moved here and lived nearby. Dubai Metro was still being constructed and was not to open until 2009. After it did, part of the ground floor was converted into retail area including a large Carrefour. This is now the most lively part of the mall (and seems to be the only lively part of the mall.) The original mall upstairs is dying. Car parks can be easily converted into retail space but retail space with its water features, atriums and cutout slabs cannot be easily converted into a car park or anything else.

On its north side, Dubai Mall bridges a road to enter new-build extension wrapped with a car park. I wouldn’t be surprised if the car park has been engineered to have every other slab removed should some future need arise. Most buildings are columns and slabs anyway and whether they enclose a car park or retail space is becoming increasingly arbitrary. This image shows the car park escalator lobbies that will link to precisely half that number of mall levels.

On the east side of Dubai Mall, one section of the original car park is currently being reconfigured as retail space that will bridge the road and link to a three-storey extension below eight stories of car parking below three apartment towers and alongside a fourth. In this photo, the former car park on the right and behind the car park entrance sign, is still shrouded.

Past the footbridge, one section of the car park perimeter is clad in apartments resulting from a value-adding view corridor to Burj Khalifa. I was hoping I might be witnessing the birth of a new urban typology with apartments accessed directly from a multi-storey car park but, given the elevational similarities with the corner tower, I expect access to the side apartments will be via horizontal extensions of existing corridors.

An answer won’t be forthcoming until these apartments hit the market but either way, I like the idea of accessing apartments directly from a multi-storey car park. I find myself wondering what site dimensions, minimum number of apartments and maximum number of levels would need to be to make it work. If this car park/apartment hybrid does turn out to be the beginning of a new urban typology, then it’ll be more easier to use and no more or less impersonal than today’s apartments with their anonymous elevators, corridors and lobbies. Even so, all we will have done is replicate suburbia with columns and slabs a bit more muscular.

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