Sonia Soltani on the glamorous cladding transforming shopping centre car parks

Developers spend hundreds of millions on retail-led developments, so it’s about time they realised that a good-looking car park can make as much impression as a ritzy department store. So it’s goodbye to the depressing concrete block – think Owen Luder’s brutalist car park in Gateshead – and hello to a new generation of car parks that, thanks to highly inventive cladding design, will never send a shiver of disgust down a driver’s spine.

The materials have to be robust enough to withstand graffiti, harsh weather and being hit by cars, but they can also be attractive. Architects Sheppard Robson and Gollifer Langston Architects are two firms that are working on groundbreaking car park schemes. The former is in Penrith using timber cladding panels, the latter in Leicester with aluminium mesh cladding.

Sheppard Robson’s timber-clad car park is inspired by the Cumbrian landscape
Sheppard Robson’s timber-clad car park is inspired by the Cumbrian landscape

From national park to car park

The three-storey car park in Penrith, Cumbria, is part of a large retail-led regeneration scheme for developer Lowther Manelli. It will have a capacity of more than 1,000 cars when completed in 2008. Sheppard Robson came on board in March this year when the local planning authority said it wanted a contemporary-looking, undulating, timber-clad car park. The planning authority thought timber was the most appropriate choice for the facade of the building, which is located on a greenfield site.

Project architect Rodi MacArthur says Cumbria is “a region to which people are drawn because of the drama of the landscape”, and it is that same landscape that inspired the design of the car park envelope. “We shaped the facade in a random, arbitrary way to give it some relief. We used the drama and the topography of the nearby Lake District to design the facade.”

A digital trail map produced a linear representation of the Cumbrian landscape. The design of the 250m long curved structure will replicate the natural peaks and hills through almost 1,650 vertical strips of timber. The strips are 50mm wide and 300mm deep, with a gap of 100mm. They will be pre-assembled on 1500mm wide panels using horizontal timber bearers and then installed on the main concrete structure.

The car park will be more than half open and does not have a roof. On the facade, the only openings will be 50mm gaps between the strips of timber and 100mm gaps between the cladding panels. Inside the car park, the architect has come up with a partitioning system of colour-coded translucent glass and polycarbonate walls.

MacArthur says he expects to specify a north European softwood in a light shade that will weather to a grey colour. The challenge for the architect will be to get the cladding package for £500,000. The practice has had preliminary discussions with timber suppliers to decide whether to use monolithic pieces straight from sections of tree or create profiles in laminated veneer timber sheets cut in large lengths and widths, which companies such as Finnforest produce.

A contractor is yet to be appointed for the project, but MacArthur is confident that the design will remain untouched. He says: “One of the beauties of the concept is that it’s so strong, there is no scope to change it.”

Gollifer Langston’s car park and residential scheme will feature similar aluminium mesh cladding
Gollifer Langston’s car park and residential scheme will feature similar aluminium mesh cladding

A fine mesh

Gollifer Langston’s 2,000-space car park will serve the £350m Highcross Quarter mixed-use development in the centre of Leicester. It will stand opposite the John Lewis department store designed by Foreign Office Architects and be directly linked to a residential development. The Highcross Quarter’s developer, a joint venture between Hammerson and Hermes, wanted the design for the 60,000m2 project to be inspired by the city’s traditional textile industry. Foreign Office Architects has created a glass fritted facade that evokes a lace pattern; Gollifer Langston’s contribution to the theme is a mesh cladding system that features a hexagonal weave effect.

Director Andy Gollifer said he wanted to initiate a dialogue between the two projects. But the real challenge was to design an attractive eight-storey car park. “We wanted to develop something that works architecturally on quite a large scale,” he says. “This car park can stand alone and doesn’t need to be disguised in any way. We wanted people to enjoy the car park instead of being repelled by it.”

The facade of the car park, which is naturally ventilated and has no windows, will comprise a mesh system made of pressed aluminium sheets punched with large apertures. The facade will be overlaid in two layers with lighting incorporated at ground and top levels. The architect says a moiré effect will be created by the interplay of light and shadow between the two layers. Gollifer hopes the shimmering movement will add interest to the rather mundane experience of driving around a car park.

The 100m long facade will be broken up with ramps clad in cementitous panels. The architect, which worked with structural engineer Watermans on the design, says all the panels will be bespoke and manufactured in the same size. The mesh cladding panels will also be specified for the facade of the adjacent residential block designed by Gollifer Langston to create a coherent pattern. The project has started on site and is expected to be completed in 2008.