London's Glorious Curvy Car Parks: An Appreciation

By M@ Last edited 8 months ago

Last Updated 20 September 2023

London's Glorious Curvy Car Parks: An Appreciation

Look me in the eye and tell me that this isn't a work of sublime beauty:

A curvy helter-skelter of a car park

You're drooling over the exit ramp to Romford's Brewery shopping centre. You are not the first. It is a thing of restrained majesty; a patient coil of concrete; a spring-loaded mushroom; a brutalist pinball bumper.

It should be given immediate listed status, along with the Brewery's snaking, stilted entrance ramp. Modern wonders of the world... or, at least, of Romford.

A slightly coiled entrance ramp to a car park with a giant tower behind

Coiled car parks of this calibre are a rarity, but not unknown. A similar, and even taller stablemate supports the Pavilions shopping centre over in Uxbridge.

A spiral car park ramp. A flatter building on the right is enhanced with anti-Tory graffiti

This version somehow lacks the grace of its Romford playfellow. It could be the absence of a mushroom-gill roof, or the mesh-compromised lower curve. Perhaps it just needs a lick of paint. This is still a handsome fellow, mind, and benefits from significant amounts of anti-Tory graffiti in the adjoining walkway.

And there's more. Just outside London in Watford can be found a third helical motorstore so divine that it comes with its own halo.

A spiral car park with a church in the background

It's not often that a modern building can outshine a medieval church, but there really is no competition here, is there?

The examples continue. Wood Green shopping centre is coy with its charms, but you can see the hidden beauty from 3D satellite view:

Wood Green shopping centre car park

Isn't it dreamy? Meanwhile, Harrow has its own take on the curvy exit ramp, with a gappier coil and brick cladding:

All are under-appreciated beauties. All enhance the streetscape. Even toddlers know the value of an artfully executed exit ramp:

A fisher price garage with a yellow spiral ramp attached to a toy garage on a hardwood floor

Someone on Twitter will, by now, have accused me of promoting car culture — of championing the internal combustion engine at a time of climate emergency. Not a bit of it. We can still ogle New York's Chrysler Building without owning a Chrysler. The Thames-side Shell building and Shell Mex House are much-admired structures originally commissioned by Big Oil. Similarly, the exquisite coils of Romford, Watford and Uxbridge would not exist were it not for the motor car, but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate their forms. Plus, these things eat cars. The scratches on the inside walls of the ramps tell of a thousand insurance claims.

The tower of babel as painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
The Tower of Babel. Would have made an admirable multistorey car park had it existed into our own times... or, indeed, at all.

We'd hope, too, that these remarkable convolutions will outlive their original purpose. What goes around comes around. You only have to look at Peckham Levels to see how a car park can be reinvented as a cultural and commercial space. Imagine these buildings as hanging gardens, or skate parks, or multistorey galleries, or industrial escape rooms, or allotments. Our mushroom-shaped friend in Romford might become an actual mushroom farm.

Let's celebrate London's glorious spirals for what they are now, and what they might become — just around the bend.

All images by the author, except (obviously) for the Tower of Babel, which was painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder; and the view of Wood Green shopping centre, which was sadly never painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.