Places – The Multi-Storey

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

Editor’s note: This piece first appeared on DTW in December 2016 as part of the ‘Places’ theme.

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 …..

12 thoughts on “Places – The Multi-Storey”

  1. Good morning Sean and thank you for your reminiscences and observations, which made for an enjoyable breakfast read.

    I have yet to visit a multi-storey or underground car park in Ireland, but the Chapelfield shopping centre underground car park in my old stomping ground of Norwich, one of the more pleasant of its type, being clean and well lit, had one novel feture: it had painted floors on which it was very easy to make the tyres ‘chirp’ with a touch of the accelerator, which was always fun! Here it is:

  2. When I took my driving lessons many years ago my instructor told me his number one rule for city driving: don’t brake, the driver in the other car is just as afraid of damaging his car as you and he will eventually slow down and give way. It worked because we were sitting in a Neue Klasse and most other people were happy to drive around in 1200 Beetles.

    Multi storey car parks remind me of a story. Someone I knew was fleet manager of a company running about six hundred cars on corporate leasing contracts. The average rate of write-off accidents was one per week(!) and one of the funniest ones was the guy with an E34 BMW who drove through a car park with his eye firmly on the onboard computer set to ‘average speed’. He tried to drive through the building without change to the average speed and didn’t see one of the thick concrete columns supporting the whole thing. End of story – a terminally damaged BMW and a very abashed driver.

    FRA airport has parking facilities for 25,000 cars in a fourteen-level multi storey.
    At their prices this is a business of multi million Euros per year.
    Their ‘parking systems’ manager once (around 1992) asked me whether there was a way to automatically scan and register the number plates of the cars standing there. He had a group of twenty employees who walked through the parking area and wrote down all number plates every day, entering the numbers in a computer system in the afternoon. He wanted to replace them with robots.
    Purpose of the operation was to find how long a car was standing there. When a car was parked for more than three months on the same place it was removed and stored on a greenfield owned by the airport. After a year the car got assigned new paperwork and was auctioned off with the minimum being the parking fees.
    I asked him whether it was worth the hassle to care for Ladas or Skodas people left there because it was too expensive to drive them to the scrapyard.
    The guy started laughing and told me that there always were reasons why people were forced to buy a one way ticket to South America and get away as quickly as possible, abandoning their Ferrari, Bentley or Rolls at the airport, the cost of the car being less than being sentenced for tax fraud or similar. He told me they pulled out about 350 cars par year that way, with auctions held twice a year. Because he was the boss of the whole operation he manged to buy an XJ12 at every auction at minimum price, thus avoiding the need to have the car serviced expensively.

    1. Not a bad strategy to drive an XJ12. I have no idea how much the parking fees and thus the price of the car were, but I wonder if he made a profit selling it on.

    2. The current rate of parking at FRA is 35 EUR per day for standard parking and 39 EUR for business class parking (closer to the check-in area). Residential parking is 250 EUR per month.
      They calculate with a quarter of a million EUR per day.

      At the time of the story the rate was 43 Deutschmarks per day, resulting in a minimum price of 3,000 Deutschmarks for a car at auction. Of course most of the cars sold for closer to their market value except the XJ12s of the boss. Many of the cars at those auctions are quite new like you’d expect from an owner having to leave the country in a hurry because the financial authorities are after him. I was truly amazed that the number was so high.

    3. Gunter tag Dave, this comment has been a painful one. I have a romantic view towards the automobile as a creation of art and science, as an admirable example of human thought. This applies to all cars. Ok I like trains and locomotives, but let’s leave it aside for the moment. Some cars are very high in my admiration scale, Mercedes and Jaguars in particular. For example, a 12 cylinder Jaguar is seen by me as the equivalent of a Supermarine Spitfire, actually an incarnation of a Spitfire for road use, where the spirit of the aeroplane lives in the car. The driver has to think, act and feel like the fighter pilot. Aggressive, delicate and chivalrous the same time. The car of such a psyche deserves to be respected, first and foremost by its owner/driver. Secondly, by the other road users. I tend to leave these cars space to overtake me, in order to admire them, and as a sign of respect. The same I do with motorcycles, for more or less the same reasons, and for concern of their safety. The sight of an abandoned, rusting, dusty XJR into an anonymous, grey, industrial architecture aerodrome car parking, could reduce me to desperation. The ideals would have been defeated by the harsh realities of life. Somebody with money bought something that merited respect, and was unable to value it.

  3. On the subject of car (non) parking fees. Many British airports now charge a fee to pull into the car park area simply to drop off departing passengers, which I think is outrageous! If I recall correctly, Stansted charged me £9 the last time I did so.

  4. Multistoreys have always fascinated me, growing up in the Fens parking in one seemed rather exotic. I drew them as a kid (a good way to fit as many cars as possible onto the page) and weirdly still get some tiny buzz from driving into them today. Car decks on ferries are the same, some kind of sense of entering a giant living industrial machine, and of everyone else doing the same.

    Sadly modern cars are outgrowing the original brutalist multistoreys. Its easy to redraw lines in an open car park, less so to move structural pillars. The multistorey under Southampton Princess Anne maternity unit is one of the tightest. Rather unfortunate as most cars need a baby seat removing. Then putting back in, now with a baby in it…

  5. Any time I drove a Transit into a multi-story I would instinctively duck my head. These days I try to avoid them, and certainly try not to park next to a vehicle with a reputation for catching fire – certain Opel/Vauxhall MPVs, certain American EVs…

    1. We used to do the same in our Discovery. Completely irrational, of course, but hard to resist.

    2. I try not to park next to cars with child seats on their back seat because you can bet on their owners bumping the doors against your car.
      The parking spaces in FRA airport multi storey are so narrow that when an X5, a Q7 and an ML park in one row none of them can open the doors next to another of the monsters. Small wonder manufacturers are working on auto parking features. For a certain time I had to park there very often because I used a plane three to four days a week. Fronm y certain point my car’s surface looked like a golf ball because of the innumerable doors smacked against it.

  6. Great article thank you for sharing. I believe many of the subterranean car parks built under squares and buildings in London and many European cities were built under the premise of air raid shelters for thousands of people following the two World Wars in the hope of protecting residents from future aerial bombardment and rocket strikes.

    Observing the veiled threats of Putin these concrete spaces may one day cater for the very task they were originally planned.

  7. Years back I regularly used the multi story car park at Cincinnati international USA that consisted of a clever design I had not seen before.
    The entire parking floor on each level “was the ramp to the next level” thus eliminating the steep incline and sharp corners found in most UK multi stories. This together with wider spaces made for much easier progress.

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