Garages: Each to Our Own Heterotopia
The ethos of the rebel garage is more than a secondary use: it reflects and produces a completely different and unique way of seeing architecture in Chicago, one that depends on both the physical parameters of a building but also the specifics of time, use, and engagement with its surroundings. In his 1967 lecture, “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault defines the idea of heterotopia as sites defined by their otherness: spaces of crisis, juxtapositions of incongruous uses, and territories that are temporally rather than spatially delineated.1 A boat, separated from the world, running under its own rules that circumnavigate land-bound realities, or a motel room where two lovers meet, temporarily constructing an alternate life—these are Foucault’s heterotopias par excellence.
We understand the rebel garage as Chicago’s own ubiquitous and quintessential heterotopia: an architectural condition not defined by the lines and materials notated on an architectural drawing, a Department of Buildings permit, a zoning ordinance, or an owner’s use on any given day but rather a combination of all these parameters, including the myriad uses that transpire every day and every night. The rebel garage allows what Foucault describes as “deviant” uses, broadly understood. It is a space where the activities that cannot take place in the house, the office, or the street, but require certain conditions of both privacy and publicness, begin to flourish. It’s a space which allows those activities—a side business, a private hobby, or a dream of an alternate lifestyle—to grow. It is a space whose openings and closings are precisely orchestrated by the closing of the garage door and the illumination of a single overhead light. The garage can be completely transformed by these simple operations: think, for example, of the complete otherworldliness of a punk garage band playing live at full volume.2
Unlike, however, Foucault’s heterotopic cruise ships, psychiatric hospitals, or prisons, which are singular spaces, constructed as communities isolated from the rest of the world, the rebel garage is both individualized and distributed. Chicago’s mundane garage, when considered as an ecology of interiors, can be read as a system (rather than singular example) of heterotopic otherness that is, in fact, often legally required to be delivered along with your place of residence. The way that the garage becomes a potent site for heterotopic conditions, simultaneously personalized and yet also ubiquitous, reveals our collective need for secondary spaces—“other” spaces for both private and public pursuits.
The idea of a heterotopia that is both personalized and distributed occurs everywhere, in different forms. In Tokyo, Japan: consider photographer Noritaka Minami’s work, documented in his book 1972, on the Nagakin Capsule Tower.3 The apartment tower, designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa, was intended to be a prototype for a new, customizable, and mobile form of modern life. Today, these early dreams have calcified: yet in their wake, each living unit has become increasingly eccentric, unique, and architecturally transformed by its inhabitants.4 In Barcelona: consider architect Andres Jaque’s project, IKEA Disobedients, which critiqued IKEA’s marketing campaign describing one’s home as a personal “kingdom.”5 Jaque visited, photographed, and interviewed Barcelona residents who use their houses and apartments as businesses, LGBT support group headquarters, farms, video studios, and more. Or, lastly, in New York: consider the provocative series of Manhattan Mini Storage ads, one of which featured an image of a man in drag surrounded by a wardrobe of clothing in a storage unit, titled: “I like my wife and kids, but I love my storage room.” This ad featured in a series of others in which the storage unit might be used to grow hobbies (“I like film festivals, but I love…”); avoid pet hair (“I like pet adoption, but I love…”); or nerd out (“I like special issue no. 364, but…”). All over the world, contemporary urban life produces, in parallel to more generic architectural building types, these odd personalized spaces of eccentric pursuits: a storage locker or garage where one can engage in and imagine alternative presents and futures.
What do you do in your garage other than park your car? What rules and status quos—architectural, economic, social, or cultural—do you break or slip around in your garage? Who do you break those rules with? Understanding the ethos of the rebel garage is to understand it not just through the physical characteristics of its size, or materials, but also as a condition situated in the gray areas of both time and culture. Temporally, it opens when the door closes and the light turns on, and closes when you pack up your hobby or side business for the night. Culturally, it holds space in gray zones: in territories of behavior, business, and desires which cannot exist in the main home or in the street.
Imagine lights on in a network of garages in the city at night: the tens of thousands of seemingly mundane architectures, each with its own unique yeasty interior of otherness, incubating the B-side cultures that are inevitably produced by the exhaustively routine conditions of everyday life outside.
NINE POLICY PROPOSALS
What is a “garage” in the eyes of the law? Today, a variety of intersecting regulations in Chicago’s Municipal Code, Building Code, and Zoning Ordinance regulate the architecture, location, and use of garages in the city. Here are nine policy proposals which aim to provoke conversations about the rights and restrictions which govern our garages today, and the ways that these frameworks might evolve in the future to accommodate or inspire change.
#1: REBEL BLOCKS
ORGANIZE AND LIMIT “REBEL BLOCKS” AT THE CITY SCALE
The Chicago zoning ordinance currently has a regulatory mechanism called an “overlay district.” The ordinance describes this regulation as a tool for “special situations or to accomplish specific city goals that cannot be easily or efficiently addressed through the use of base districts.” Currently in the city, thirteen zoning overlays exist which add either additional rights or restrictions to a certain area. This proposal introduces a “Rebel Block district overlay,” which would allow more creative uses of garages, while also opening the opportunity to set new limits on heights, areas, and signage. These “Rebel Blocks” could allow the rebel garage ethos to be limited to areas where an entire block of Chicagoans have decided together to allow the following transformations in their alleys. The overlay district would also allow the city overall to regulate the locations of rebel garage alley blocks—for example, in consideration of existing base districts, nearby other incentive programs such as transit-oriented development, or in partnership with city programs, such as the Dollar Lot Program which is already often used by Chicagoans to create suburban-style garages and driveways. This overlay district would allow for an urban-scale calibration of the following proposed changes, as well as a time-based approach which might introduce prototype or pilot-versions of these code revisions over a longer period of time.
#2: DIVERSIFY BUSINESSES
STARTUP DIVERSE BUSINESSES IN YOUR GARAGE
Imagine an alley where you can buy fresh eggs, have your fortune told, and get your oil changed—all by your neighbors. Currently, Chicago businesses that operate out of residents’ homes are regulated by the Municipal Code. This code limits what kinds of businesses can be located in a domestic space. However, the landscape of small businesses is transforming in the context of the sharing and “gig” economies, freelance labor, and the increasing number of individuals pursuing self-employment outside of 9-to-5 jobs for economic or personal reasons. Additionally, commercial space in Chicago can often be difficult to secure for new businesses, especially women and minority-owned businesses with less access to initial investment capital, as they are often restricted to longer-term leases in the 3- to 5-year range. Recent trends in “micro-retail,” such as small commercial spaces and pop-up shops, have started to address these issues through new building types. In contrast, this proposal takes advantage of existing small buildings by expanding the range of businesses that can be operated out of one’s own home—including the garage—to construct an infrastructure for small-scale entrepreneurship.
#3: BIGGER HOME BUSINESSES
TAKE OVER THE GARAGE WITH YOUR HOME BUSINESS
Steve Jobs famously started Apple in his garage. How many other significant businesses may have started in the unique space of the garage: out of the traffic, bustle, and quotidian burdens of the main house? Can we describe the Chicago garage as a possible space of dreams? Currently, the Municipal Code regulates how garages can be used by home occupation businesses. The code dictates that a garage cannot be the primary site of your work: according to the code, the garage can only be used to store extra papers and documents for business. This proposal allows the main work of home businesses to expand into garages and also removes the overall square footage restriction that limits the size of home offices to 300 square feet. This change, which has also been proposed by Chicago’s Small Business Advocacy Council, reflects how many Chicagoans already see the garage as an architectural type which can incubate, foster, and provide the unique necessary conditions for starting something new.
#4: HANG YOUR SHINGLE
DESIGN GARAGES TO REFLECT HOW THEY’RE USED
Two vanguards of architecture’s post-modern movement, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, famously described two ways that buildings can be designed to convey (or “signify”) their uses to the public: “the duck” or the “decorated shed.” “The duck” uses its shape or figure to convey an idea, such as the basket-shaped headquarters of a basket manufacturer. The “decorated shed,” in comparison, is a simple, utilitarian building with a large exterior sign; in this case, Venturi and Scott Brown were inspired by Las Vegas roadside motels and convenience stores. In Chicago, the Municipal Code currently restricts home occupation businesses from displaying signs, having dedicated entrances, or using shelves to display wares. This proposal argues that the “decorated shed” is an economically efficient and symbolically powerful way to transform simple garages into vibrant spaces open to the public. While preserving the residential character of a main street has a certain value, this proposal speculates that the alley sides of Chicago homes can become a little more flexible.
#5: EVERYONE’S INVITED
WELCOME OTHERS: MORE CLIENTS, EMPLOYEES, AND DELIVERIES
Any small businesses owner will tell you their business is a network of connected people, not individuals: they comprise communities of clients, employees, supporters, investors, friends, and colleagues. Currently, the Municipal Code restricts the amount of people who can visit, be employed in, or make a delivery to a home business. Building on the goals of Proposal #3—which allows more areas of accessory building to be dedicated to businesses—this change suggests increasing the limits on daily visitors to a home business. Garages and alleys in Chicago are already bustling quasi-public spaces. In our interviews, we learned that alleys are often transformed into social areas for different groups: from kids playing between a block’s backyards, to residents fixing cars with the garage door open, to teenagers playing an alley-long game of street hockey, to a space of exchange driven by the daily passage of scrappers, trash pick-up, and Craigslist swaps. By extending the limits on the number of visiting clients, non-resident employees, and daily deliveries that can visit a home business, this change reflects the existing productive bustle and opens alleys to further commercial traffic.
#6: LEGALIZE COACH HOUSES
BUILD NEW COACH HOUSES
Would it be convenient to have a guest house or a roommate’s unit in the backyard? How about extra rental space which would generate extra monthly income? Or a space for in-laws upon the arrival of a new baby? When Chicago’s alleys were planned at the turn of the century, they functioned as access lanes for horse-drawn carriages. The small buildings flanking these alleys were used to store coaches after returning home. Since the car replaced the horse-drawn coach as a primary means of transportation for Chicagoans, new small buildings along the city’s alleys are designed for the size of the automobile. However, coach houses that remained have been transformed for new uses by their owners—many of them into dwelling units with a bathroom and kitchen. Looking into the future, with ride sharing and autonomous vehicles on the horizon reducing the need for private cars—and increased concerns about combustion engines’ negative effects on public health and the climate—this proposal anticipates that alleys will transform once again. Currently, Chicago’s zoning ordinance only allows certain structures in the rear setback (the area between a house and an alley) of a building’s lot. Allowances today currently include: garage, shed, and shading structures like pergolas. This proposal suggests bringing back the “coach house,” with limits at three stories and up to 1,200 square feet.
#7: GARAGE FIRST, HOUSE SECOND
DEVELOP GARAGES AS INVESTMENT STRATEGIES
In the current zoning ordinance, garages are categorized as “accessory buildings,” which is defined as a structure that is secondary to a main house. By defining garages in this way, the code also restricts owners from constructing them before the main building. This change proposes that garages should be allowed to be built first. In this way, garages might function as early investments, fiscal collateral, or the first step in phased construction. The Cook County Land Bank (cclba) currently holds 4,000+ lots, all of which have been cleared for back taxes and are made available to the buyer at sub-market prices. However, in order to purchase a lot from cclba, one is required to show the financial means to develop the site. If accessory buildings were built first, this may allow a broader populace to begin to invest in vacant lots. An auto-mechanic, for example, might build a small garage and relocate his business there—over time, he may eventually build the main structure. A new family might build a coach house structure to live in, while saving the funds to build a main house, eventually transforming that accessory structure into a rental unit for extra income. With this change, the city’s numerous vacant lots, currently untended or being tended at a cost to the city or county government, could be re-distributed to residents more quickly by re-defining the “accessory structure” as a cautious, but hopeful, architectural investment.
#8: NO PARKING
REDUCE PARKING REQUIREMENTS
In Chicago and other U.S. cities, there are currently stringent parking requirements for dwelling units. These requirements emerge from a post-war ideal of nuclear families organized around an automobile-focused life. This proposal reflects the way in which the landscape of 21st century domestic space and transportation is more complex, diverse in its forms, messy, and nuanced than the post-war ideal. While some Chicagoans may continue to need space to park a car, many others prefer to use that space for secondary uses such as the ones described in the Rebel Garage Archive. Additionally, we argue that the conditions of contemporary transportation are moving away from privately owned cars—just as it moved away from the horse-drawn coach a century ago. For example, major cities such as Oslo are banning cars from their downtowns and others, such as Paris, are banning combustion engines entirely in the coming decades. Additionally, in recent years, Chicago’s Department of Transportation has been investing in urban streetscape upgrades for bikes and pedestrians; in parallel, private corporations are leading research toward shared autonomous vehicles. By reducing parking requirements and providing the option to use accessory buildings for creative secondary uses, this proposal argues for a change in regulation to both reflect and incentivize these broader changes in transportation.
#9 GARAGE STARCHITECTURE
LET GARAGE ARCHITECTURE SHINE
Chicago garages are currently uniquely limited in their architectural expression—both by regulation and by cost—in terms of building systems, materials, size, and form. With increasingly diverse uses occurring inside garages, this proposal would allow for garage architecture to begin to reflect the plethora of activities that are going on inside them. This proposal also expands on current limitations in order to open up possibilities for unexpected future activities. Could a garage be used as a drone landing pad, a political organizing space, a kombucha production kitchen, or another activity we have never seen before? Second, Rebel Garages argues that the alley may be a productive space for architectural experimentation off of the main street. While consistent character of residential streets has a certain value, we believe that the small scale and relative affordability of accessory buildings might help cultivate a potent testing ground for new building technologies. A garage or accessory building may be a good site for architects or designers to test new energy-efficient roofing details, or unconventional exterior walls, using experimentation to drive architectural innovation in Chicago. Already, alleys are sometimes known as spaces of vice or quasi-legal activities, this change proposes that the code make allowances for rebel or experimental architecture, as well.