Theme : Places – The Multi-Storey

Concrete Hell, or one of life’s small pleasures?

When I was 17, a few months after passing my driving test, I took the family Fiat 124 up to London on my own. This was the first time I had driven in a city and I was both wary and excited. Various bits of that trip remain vivid. Although the M4 was opened by then, I came in on the A4 Great West Road so that I could pass the various factories at Brentford, including the Art Deco Firestone Factory.

I remembered these from the back seat during earlier trips with my parents, and they seemed an essential part of the romance of visiting London. After Hammersmith I joined Cromwell Road and found myself in the centre lane of quite fast moving traffic rising up a flyover on a left hand curve. This seemed a great challenge, but I held my nerve and learned Rule One of city driving – as long as there’s space ahead, just keep going, don’t lift.

After Knightsbridge I peeled off to the left, avoiding Piccadilly Underpass to enter Hyde Park Corner. This I already knew would be another challenge, a huge roundabout with no traffic lights back then and populated with cars driven by rabid Londoners who could doubtless smell that I was a country boy.

I needed to keep my nerve and I entered it smoothly enough, only to hear the nah-nah of an emergency vehicle siren as a black S-Type Jaguar, complete with roof spotlights and revolving blue beacon flashed in from behind down my left side, slid smoothly across in front, lurched right down towards Victoria, the revs of the XK six-cylinder rising and the driver deftly catching the rear as it twitched out then disappeared from view. By now the adrenaline was pumping. I was really in London. In a Car. On my own. Could it get any better for a teenage fantasist? Yes. It could because I knew that my destination was a multi-storey car park.

Part of a set of stock photographs of Heathrow Airport, London October 26th, 2007. Picture shows a short stay car park at Terminal Two & Three. Picture by Ben Gurr/The Times
Terminal 3 Car Park, Heathrow – Image : Ben Gurr/The Times

Now, don’t think I was that much of a hick. By then we had a multi-storey car park back in my home town. I think it had three levels. Maybe just two. But more than one, so it was certainly multi-storey in the strictest definition. But why did the concept have such allure for me?

Movies and TV, of course. My first memory of a chase and gunfight in a multi-storey was, I think, in an episode of The Man From Uncle. I remember it because it seemed a novel idea with a car squealing round the ramps. It doesn’t seem so novel now. In the last 50 years or so, the multi-storey car park has surely seen more fictional car chases, secret assignations and violent muggings, kidnappings and deaths than any other single generic location.

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A couple of years later I visited London again, as a precursor to my actually going to live there. This time my destination was another multi-storey car park, but this time an underground one, the recently opened car park under Bloomsbury Square that is judged by many to be London’s finest car park. It is certainly the deepest and it boasts an elegant double-helix of ingress and egress ramps.

This was another special movie car park moment since, as I entered the down ramp, my mind was playing back the soundtrack of the title sequence of the 60s TV Series ‘The Prisoner’, the percussion of the music overlaid with the wail of a Lotus Seven using far more throttle than it needed when entering a car park.

In fact, Bloomsbury was not even built when the Patrick McGoohan TV series was made, they actually used two car parks; the interior is the Cumberland Gate Car Park off Park Lane, but the entrance ramp is the Abingdon Street Car Park in Westminster. Nonetheless, Bloomsbury gives that same frisson of excitement as you enter the Underworld, and is better that either architecturally.

In movies, there’s a subtle difference in emphasis between the use of the underground and overground multi-storey. The underground car park is, both actually and in narrative, the darker place. If anything really unpleasant or demonic is going to happen, it usually happens below ground. But I can’t make any easy heaven and hell parallels here.

Things only get slightly better above ground level. I’ve not watched many romcoms, but generally nice things just don’t happen in cinematic multi-stories. More regrettably, the not-so-nice things that happen in multi-storeys these days are usually pretty formulaic – they are lazy locations. It wasn’t always so.

Probably the Brutalist Gateshead car park in Get Carter seemed a smart location at the time, and the eponymous hero of the mid sixties TV series Adam Adamant Lives! did his living in an Edwardian bachelor’s apartment concealed at the top of a London car park. But usually, even when you get to the top, out onto the roof and into the sun, the chances are you’ll meet an assassin with a scoped and silenced rifle, or someone who just wants to throw you and the car off the top.

So, whenever I visit a multi-storey, there is a film playing consciously or subconsciously somewhere in my mind. I’ve been in quite a few dark, spooky deserted multi-storeys, walking up piss-soaked staircases after midnight under flickering fluorescents …. Clang! What was that noise. Shit, my phone hasn’t got a signal….But the reality is, of course, more subtle than fiction and I still enjoy it when those barriers lift and I enter a previously unexplored volume of ramped concrete.

I assume there are people who would prefer to avoid what they see as the inconvenience of multi-storeys. They’d use valet parking, or maybe search one out where the cars as whisked off on a sort of stacker. But not me certainly. Multi-storey driving is a whole sub-technique of its own, and I enjoy it. When driving on the road, few of us realise the thought and technology that goes into road surfaces. The basic crude concrete of multi-storeys guarantees wheel squeal at even walking speeds. This increases the sense of occasion, which should always be experienced with your windows down so you can savour the sound of your exhaust bouncing back at you.

A Bleak Future : Automated Car Park

Assuming you negotiate the ramps correctly, there is the inevitable smugness looking at the scuffs and scrapes left by those who didn’t. That highlights the fact that some older multi-stories are problematic, since they weren’t designed for today’s cars which are longer, wider, higher and have poorer visibility. Finally there is the need to reverse smoothly into an almost too tight space, in some places ludicrously so – last year I had to roll over my bonnet in a clumsy slow-motion Starsky & Hatch way in order to extricate myself from between the car and a wall. Then there is the walk from the car park. If you’re in many private Central London car parks, you’ll find a bevy of exotica, some the predictable hyper cars, but quite recently I came across a clutch of dusty limousines, including a Rolls-Royce Phantom V Landaulette. And I find that there’s a pleasure to be had from viewing most cars under the lighting of many car parks.

Writing this makes me realise that I have never actually entered Abingdon Street underground car park in the manner of The Prisoner’s Number Six. True, my Nissan Cube’s engine won’t quite echo back off the walls in quite the same way as a tuned Ford with a straight-through exhaust, and it would cost around £14 for even a fleeting visit but …..

10 thoughts on “Theme : Places – The Multi-Storey”

  1. My most abiding multi-storey memory is, somewhat ironically, from Venice. Anyone who has driven in Italy knows that some of the country’s multi-storeys are noticeably older, and tighter, than others – and the entry to this one felt especially narrow, even in our renter 500L. Heaven only knows how some individual (with driving talent that evidently shames the likes of Senna and Prost) had managed to coax a Silver Cloud up there. For that matter, the same applies to the equally fearless entity who had somehow charmed a Chevrolet Suburban between the bollards. The Doge’s Palace is all very well, of course, but it’s fair to say these two individuals really represented the high point of artistic flair and creativity on display in the city that day.

    1. Ah Venice car parks. I have two experiences. One was in the 80s, waiting in a queue for an hour in August to enter a multi-storey. Once in, at every level an attendant directed us upwards. Once at the top we were directed down. 5 minutes later we were back in the street – Venice was full.

      Then 20 years ago we drove into Venice in a huge deluge. Driving into the car park up to the barrier in my SM there was a shout which distracted me. I ran the window down (a slow process) only to see a guy trying to sell me a hotel/gondola/striped sweater/ whatever. Now fully distracted I grunted and went to move forwards only to somehow make contact with the bottom of the barrier stanchion. To add insult, the guy then told me I was too big an idiot to have custody of such a nice car. It felt like a modern version of the arrival scene from Death In Venice.

  2. Being accustomed to UK multi-stories with various dificult ramp designs I was somewhat intrigued by the alternative found in America where the entire parking bay is gently slanted thus becoming the ramp.
    This design eliminates the difficult steep narrow ramps which have to climb an entire floor level in a short distance.
    A simple solution that proved to be a pleasant experience in use.

  3. Is London the capital of cinematic underground car parking? The IPCRESS File also featured a rather absorbing scene set where the sun ain’t shinin’.

    Mind you, Paris seems to hide a giant hollow cavern underneath the city centre. The underground road network certainly appeared to be very extensive to me, as well as the number of adjoining underground car parks (the latter of which was used to great effect in Polanski’s Frantic, while the former shall forever be remembered for doing its thing in Ronin).

    As for the best film with a scene set in a car park – that title unquestionably has to go to Deep Throat, I mean: All The President’s Men, obviously.

    I’ve done my best to avoid underground parking since having become an XJ owner. That car’s limited width and good visibility mean it’s a joy to parallel park (if the space is long enough, obviously), but due to its enormous turning circle, it’s simply a nightmare in tight car parking spaces.

    Particularly in Italy, I did everything in my power to avoid having to enter a car park, but thanks to some particularly useless guidance, I once ended up in the underground car park of the city of Brescia, which was undergoing renovating work at the time. And in what can unfortunately be a regrettable aspect of the Italian way of doing things, the routing was accordingly changed in such a fashion that the corners, as laid out by the workmen, were not just super tight, but also featured the added thrill of having sheer rock on one side. And if that wasn’t enough, the place was also as hot as a sauna, which immediately had an effect on the Jag’s temperature gauge. After having successfully parked it after all, I certainly felt in need of a new shirt.

    1. My saying when negotiating a tricky car park is “Don’t try this in a Prestige”. To vary it I might say “Don’t try this in a Cadillac Fleetwood”. Cars have got so big and wide I can now just say “Don’t try this in a Mini”.

    2. Kris. I’d intended mentioning the added atavistic pleasure of entering car parks hewn from sheer rock. But I couldn’t fingd a suitable illustration. Brecia. I’ll remember that.

  4. It is difficult to appraise the multi-story whilst separating them from and disregarding the wider and largely negative effects that town planning enacted upon the British urban environment during the postwar period. Personally I find it very difficult to regard multi-story car parks as anything other than serial blights visited upon the landscape.

    My familiarity with the city of Leicester brings one notable example to mind. In the 1950s Leicester was one of the richest cities in Europe. Flush with cash from the knitwear trade, it embarked on a radical plan of modernisation. A marquee project was earmarked for the Lee Circle near the city centre. When it opened in 1961 the Auto Magic car park was hailed as a paragon of the city’s thrusting modernity, boasting the first Tesco outside of London on the ground floor, plus a petrol station and bowling alley. An unusual oval shape fashioned from concrete with snaking floors laid out like a flat, wide coil, the building caused an instant stir.

    That it loomed over the red brick Victorian knitwear factories that surrounded it mattered not a jot. (In fact, within twenty years most of those factories would be gone, their machines and jobs shipped abroad.)

    Wind the clock forward to now and the Lee Circle area has the air of an abandoned place. Tesco has long since departed, and NCP struggles to attract cars despite offering the cheapest parking in town. Nobody wants to brave the expanse of dirty weathered concrete to get to or from the place.

    To this day the name of the city council’s Planning Officer during the 1960s, Konrad Smigielski, provokes a rabid reaction from long-standing city residents. Thanks to the collapse of the knitwear trade and the resulting contraction of the city’s tax take, few of Smigielski’s plans came to fruition, but those that did were poorly implemented and entirely unsympathetic to the city’s existing Victorian architectural heritage. Many of his landmarks remain widely reviled or have either been torn down. Hopefully the Lee Circle car park will one day soon transition from the former to the latter.

    1. “Park all day for £3.50? Cor lumme, it’s a bloomin’ bargain mate” says Sid James, the well known South African Cockney.

      Chris, the trouble with you youngsters is that you’ve never learnt to appreciate the beauty of 20 gillion tons of reinforced concrete, suitably weathered and reeking of excrement and engine oil. What is wrong with you?

  5. I passionately hate multi-stories. Many an alloy wheel has been scarred, many a door dented or scratched, even a sill besmirched by these evil concrete obstacle courses. A pox on their design and construction and those responsible for them!

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