“Screenplay: French 2D’s Kendall Square Garage” by Courtney Coffman
November 4, 2019
Can a parking garage be cinematic? Boston-based architecture studio, French 2D, proves that everyday architectures—such as parking garages—can deliver celluloid effects. Located in the Kendall Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, an existing parking structure is covered in a bold, graphic facade system comprised of a tension-frame and mesh fabric—a building you can look at and through. In collaboration with Facid North America, who produced the mesh system, and Design Communications, the engineers and installers, the Kendall Square Garage not only demonstrates how to enhance the built environment through the clever use of color and pattern, but also negotiates the close adjacency of residential and commercial zoning.
French 2D co-founders Jenny and Anda French are known for their work “on housing and mixed-use projects that combine ideas of domesticity with more radical organizations and typologies.” In the Kendall Square Garage, the designers play with domestic architectural motifs in a supergraphic that simultaneously unifies and hides the bulky parking structure in plain sight among the neighboring gable-roof houses and the tall windows of adjacent commercial buildings. Instead of a static, monolithic garage, two-dimensional projections of architectural elements, such as window frames and doors aggregate across the facade.
The seemingly flat graphic elements are spatially enhanced by trompe l’oeil shadows to create a faux three-dimensional quality to the screen-like surface. The delightful visual trickery changes ever so slightly on each side: the east elevation reveals familiar shapes and shadows but, upon turning the corner and moving around the south and east elevations, the graphic becomes more complex as windows proliferate into a matrix and their subsequent shadows suspend space and time.
Best viewed from the top parking level, the monochromatic scrim comes to life on the north elevation, where a saturated green overtakes the graphic pattern. Unlike the neutral gray of the other three sides, this particular façade faces the residential area and is colored in green to make the architecture blend into the existing neighborhood trees, allowing the building to dissipate into the sky. French 2D, the women behind the curtain wall, transform the parking garage from ordinary urban infrastructure to a technicolor 26,000 square foot architectural adventure.
Bringing this fantasy to life are French 2D’s brightly-hued frocks. Architectural objects in themselves, the matching neoprene kimono-like robes are patterned with the same geometric linework of windows, doors, and roofs moving across the facade scrim and exude a soft, volumetric silhouette. The bold pink and green fabric bring emotion to the façade’s abstract pattern. The otherwise oversized structure is given a both a sense scale and a surreal quality by inserting these costumes into the project—a quality that isn’t lost on the designers, “we wanted it to feel like we are photoshopped into reality, a little something uncanny.” Anda French shares, “in the architectural photography, we ourselves became loosely translated scale figures, wandering the site as freed pieces of the drawing.”
The project photographs become motion pictures in which French 2D lead us on a virtual tour of the parking structure. An imaginative journey, their twin figures catch a glimpse of the garage from a distance as they peer over a temporary fence; they take in the building from across the street and wander around its towering walls; occupying the second floor, they gaze out on the railroad tracks close by and eventually find reprieve from up high, overlooking a corner moment. Once they enter the garage, the exterior building type known for expressing “structure” that displays a notion of interiority—a cunning paradox.
From within the garage, the mesh fabric takes on a new quality: it frames multiple views looking out of the garage onto the existing context. “We played in the zone of contextual scale—loosely translating windows, doors and building-like objects with multiple cast shadows to produce surreal quality.” Like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the building becomes a voyeur, narrowly peering onto its nearby neighbors. As sunlight pours through the intertwined structure of drawing and fabric, shadows become convoluted, twisting between reality and representation, further exacerbating this film noir moment. The garage exhibits a very different character that doesn’t quite feel like the car parks of the mall or even of commercial districts. Its proximity to an art-house cinema reinforces the project’s unique location and draws parallels between the scrim surface and the silver screen inside the theaters. Both the screen and garage stand lifeless until they are animated with projected images—or in the case of French 2D—the architectural drawing.
Kendall Square Garage is a fresh example of how remnant infrastructures can perform as the protagonist in redevelopment schemes—one that doesn’t require rezoning or reprogramming of the structure itself. The parking structure denies fading into the background of the city, rejecting a modest camouflage solution. Instead, the garage activates its context and demonstrates the graphic potential of such systems, prompting a simple solution to a type-casted urban eye-sore. The mesh fabric facade gives illusionistic dimension and charming character to this seemingly monolithic, everyday architecture.
– Courtney Coffman is a writer and editor based in Princeton, New Jersey.