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[Translate to English:] © Daimler

From luxury car hotel to automated car park

In the early days of the car, vehicles were not simply parked up in large city-center car parks, but kept in luxurious car hotels with many services on offer. Digitalization could see this making a come-back.

In May 1901, the world's first multi-story car park opened in London's Denman Street, near Piccadilly Circus. It is not to be compared to the multi-story car parks we know today: In the early days of the car, large car parks were fashionable, imposing buildings serving as symbols of progress and the dawning of a new age. They were known as "car hotels" (in German: "Autohotel" or "Garagenpalast"), offering time-limited parking and also providing a "home garage" for cars owned by the city's residents. The cars were transported by elevator to lockable boxes, spread over several floors. The chauffeurs repaired their vehicles directly here, and washed them at special car-wash points or sometimes directly outside in the street.

Refuelling a automobile in the car park Zschau in Leipzig in the 1920s © Wikimedia Commons
Refuelling a automobile in the car park Zschau in Leipzig in the 1920s © Wikimedia Commons

The rooms, in which the drivers were able to stay overnight, were comparable to those in high-class hotels. In some buildings, it was possible to pass the time in a casino. There were impressive car sales rooms and showrooms on the ground floor, and of course a filling station and a workshop. The services also made running a 'car park' financially viable. Unlike many apartments, the multi-story car parks were heated to protect the vehicles – a parking space cost more than the rental on a two-room apartment, writes Jürgen Hasse in his book "Übersehene Orte. Zur Kulturgeschichte und Heterotopologie des Parkhauses" ("Forgotten places. The cultural history and heterotopology of the multi-story car park").

These high-rise car parks were symbols of progress - in concrete, steel and glass, the materials of the age. "Large surfaces of glass allowed rooms to be flooded with light," Hasse writes. The light made the garage a special place in its time. For example, the "Garage Ponthieu", in Paris's 8th arrondissement featured a rose window in the façade above the entrance – like in a cathedral.

Ramps instead of elevators – as pragmatism wins out

As advances were made in the vehicle engineering, the car parks also changed. In the new buildings, car elevators were replaced by ramps. This was because the elevators were expensive, and generated on-going running costs, and therefore ramps were far more economical. However, a lot more floor area needed to be provided for the car park, in order to accommodate the ramps. Even in the 1930s, the rule was: Building a ramp only pays off if at least 30 cars can be parked on each level, as Joachim Kleinemanns writes in his book "Parkhäuser. Architekturgeschichte einer ungeliebten Notwendigkeit" ("Multi-story car parks. The architectural history of an unloved necessity"). Even after World War II, ramped car parks remained the preferred solution in multi-story car park construction.

The Kant-Garagenpalast is the oldest still preserved interwar multi-story car park in Europe with a double-spiral ramp © Wikimedia Commons
The Kant-Garagenpalast is the oldest still preserved interwar multi-story car park in Europe with a double-spiral ramp © Wikimedia Commons

The oldest still preserved interwar multi-story car park in Europe with a double-spiral ramp is in Berlin-Charlottenburg: The Kant-Garagenpalast was built from 1929 to 1930 and was still in use as a car park with filling station until 2017. Once completed, the Kant-Garagenpalast enjoyed international fame – during the 1932 International Building Exhibition, guided tours were even offered to view it. Today, in the history of culture and architecture, it is considered a key building of the Weimar Republic. Some of the original garage boxes have been preserved through to today.

Even after World War II, multi-story car parks were not simply places for parking cars as we know them today. They continued to be built as standard with maintenance services for cars, workshops, filling stations, and stores selling car accessories. To be able to operate the car parks more profitably, new buildings also included plans for stores, restaurants, offices and hotels.

The car park becomes a mass phenomenon

In the 1960s, the relationship to the car changed: Whereas before it was a luxury item reserved to the upper classes, it now became something anyone could own. The many cars required many parking spaces, which could not be expensive. In many car parks, the service facilities were lost. Unheated car parks became the norm. However, filling stations and car washes remained integrated in many post-war garages.

After the automobile services and luxury offers for a wealthy upper class declined, new concepts for use were found to keep multi-story car parks profitable: Apartments, offices, workshops, bowling alleys or even family houses were built on top of many of them – city center living space was valuable. In some places, the car parks were combined with other buildings such as schools or stores, and the reinforced concrete skeleton of the car park was converted or added to for these new uses. The intention was for car parks to be better integrated into the urban structure and not be isolated parking spaces for cars. With the emerging environmental movement in the 1970s, high-rise car parks went green: Knotweed, wisteria or ivy graced their walls.

The large car park Hinsch in Bremen is today a protected monument of culture © Godewind (talk) / Wikipedia cc-Lizenz
The large car park Hinsch in Bremen is today a protected monument of culture © Godewind (talk) / Wikipedia cc-Lizenz

In the 1990s, fully-automated multi-story car parks and underground car parks, with up to 16 levels, were built. Advances in the control engineering for high-bay units at the end of the 20th century made automated parking possible on a bigger scale. As in the early days, the cars are transported via elevator to the upper levels. Secured against damage and theft, their storage requires less space. In Dresden, Germany's biggest fully-automated car park at that time was opened in 2004. It has space for 192 cars.

From 2000 on: The car park becomes beautiful again

Over the years, the image of multi-story and underground car parks had suffered. Dark parking spaces and walkways with cold neon lighting, and quite frequently no mobile phone reception, ensured that people preferred to get out of such places quickly. In the 1990s, that changed. The reinforced steel construction of many car parks needed to be renovated. That gave birth to redesigned façades, interiors, lighting and stairwells. The car park at Leipzig Zoo, for example, was clad in bamboo – appropriate to the exotic animal worlds awaiting the visitors in the zoo itself. Beach bars were introduced into many car parks ­– the unloved location became a popular place for spending time agreeably.

In addition, multi-story car parks are again changing from being a temporary parking space for a shopping trip to town or a visit to the cinema to being permanent parking spaces – just like the "home garage" in the early days of the car. In Cologne, the Maastricht-based architects office of Wiel und Arets built decks of apartments on the flat roof of a car park. As a result, the cars park practically outside the apartment door. On the entresol level below the apartments, gardens and play areas have been created for the residents.

Send the car via app to its parking site: With Automated Valet Parking (AVP), the car park's camera and sensor technology locates a suitable space and guides the car there © Mercedes Benz
Send the car via app to its parking site: With Automated Valet Parking (AVP), the car park's camera and sensor technology locates a suitable space and guides the car there © Mercedes Benz

Try out automated parking at the IAA

Developments in engineering have always also influenced the architecture of car parks. So which car park suits the car of today, and the car of the future? Or e-cars, traveling quietly and autonomously from one place to the next? One thing is certain: In future, we won't need to park up ourselves. The complicated maneuvering and checking whether the car will actually fit into an available gap are things of the past. You can already experience today how that will work: At IAA MOBILITY, every visitor can try out driverless parking! In the Messe West car park, vehicles can be handed over to the car park technology several times a day, prompting the control operation and autonomous parking up. Cars can similarly be washed automatically or have their battery charged.

Automated Valet Parking (AVP) is the name of the system enabling driverless parking up in a suitably-equipped car park. Cars with the appropriate level of technology for autonomous driving will no longer require a human driver for parking in future. All the driver needs to do is to drive into the car park, get out and send the car to a parking space via an app – and similarly retrieve it later via smartphone. Driving up and down ramps autonomously and changing levels – for the car of the very near future, that will be child's play. One example of a car equipped for AVP is the new Mercedes S-Class, which has a Level 3 autonomous driving system.

The car park's camera and sensor technology locates a suitable space and guides the car there, once the car park system has connected with the car and calculated the route to the nearest appropriate space. Cameras and sensors monitor the routes and the environment, and measure distances: If they identify pedestrians crossing ahead, the car is sent a warning signal and brakes immediately.

Several major car and infrastructure manufacturers are involved in the joint "Automated Valet Parking" (AVP) project: BMW, Ford, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and CARIAD (the VW Group's Automotive Software subsidiary), together with Bosch, Continental, Valeo, Kopernikus Automotive and Unikie. That guarantees that in future all car brand and infrastructure technologies will work together.

Thus the car park is again becoming a car hotel – just like in the early days of the automobile. So what else is set to change for us? Will the car park of the future invite us not just to park the car, but to spend time there – in beautiful cafés, trendy clubs, or exciting children's play areas? Will we take walks through virtual landscapes in the sunshine there? As beautiful as the design of the multi-story car parks of olden times was – we remain excited about what's ahead. The future starts now – and at IAA MOBILITY, we can already see some part of it.

(Stage photo: © Daimler)

The IAA MOBILITY is transforming itself from a pure car show to an international mobility platform with four pillars: the Summit, the Conference, the “Blue Lane” and the downtown Munich Open Space. Under the slogan of “What will move us next”, it stands for the digital and climate-neutral mobility of the future. From 7 to 12 September 2021, the car, bike and tech industries come together at IAA MOBILITY in Munich.