After an incredible summer in San Francisco with the office of Hart Howerton, I made my way through the natural and urban landscapes of Finland, Sweden and Norway. These countries place their powerful nature at the crux of everything. I encountered a few forms of TIght Urbanism in each country. Finland has a remarkable history of small wooden gridded towns, most often being about 3 by 5 blocks. Some of these towns, such as Jyvaskyla – hometown of major Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto has such a grid layout. However, in order to adapt the grid, commonly used to organize buildings of stone, modifications to the model had to be made to accomodate the predominantly timber construction. These came in the form of fire alleys – often about 20′ wide mid-block and planted with deciduous trees to slow burn from one group of buildings to another. Here you can see one still in existence as a park now that most grid towns are made up of banal, post-war, concrete housing blocks.
Another example of wooden urbanism is the very well preserved village of Rauma, the best kept example of Nordic wooden villages. One can imagine these tiny lanes filled with people bustling about in the winter work hours with snow covering everything before one tucks into one of the low brightly colored buildings where everything is wood. These scales create a very intimate form of urban life that serves as an itneresting model for high density low-rise neighborhoods.
In Norway, Bergen is an interesting waterfront town on the rugged fjord coast of the southwest, where the Hanseatic League, a set of trade guilds had their northern outpost in the Middle Ages. The town is backed right up against a set of mountains and the sea, giving an interesting topography for building fabric to nestle into. Here are some examples of the Hanseatic Bryggen pier village and some of the more typical housing alleys in the town:
Finally after a first round of edits, the book chronicling my travels, adventures, sketches, and photos from this year-long foray into alleyways is available at blurb.com. Please email me if you have any questions. You can purchase it from the link above!
Thank you for supporting my work.
– Daniel Toole
To continue the alley library, the only contemporary book I’ve come across is a small booklet called Site Unseen: Toronto Laneway Architecture and Urbanism, by the University of Toronto Press. This book highlights a survey of housing neighborhoods with alleys running between lots. It is the result of a studio course taught by Brigitte Shim and Donald Chong at the University of Toronto in 1995. It has a great set of diagrams showing the growth and evolution of the alleys within the selected neighborhoods of Toronto. Apparently laneway housing is an option and the last section of the book presents a dozen student projects depicting uses from community centers and houses to laundromats that hang-dry on the alley.
The notion of alley housing is very interesting as the space available is quite valuable. As far as obstructing right of ways go here in Seattle, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for this at the moment. However, what if housing was to parasitically attach into existing infrastructure above the going-ons below? What if egress stairs both external and internal were braided into a new network of structures? Below a scheme depicts a variety of uses including commercial, park, and residential. This is a series of fire escape follies. These structures could project minimally from 6′-8′ without breaking to many laws as long as they were above 25′ in the air. Imagine seeing pedestrian activity turn into an alley and up the wall to create a linked vertical and horizontal network.
Since a broken set of fingers has recently delayed my drawing proposals, I have started gathering written material on alleys. Thus far the resources have been scant, particularly in addressing modern uses. My favorite is a little book I had cone across quotes from, called Alleys: A Hidden Resource by the Louisville urbanist, Grady Clay. The book was published in 1978 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s a small book highlighting a brief history of the alleys’ role in the culture of the American city with a specific focus on five alleys in Louisville. These five alleys were selected for their prototypical conditions and locations around the city. Five studies were done with various organisations in the five communities to determine how to make the alleys better places to serve present and future adjacent uses while preserving their character. It’s an incredible precedent for anyone studying how to revitalize alleys in an American city as it highlights the political processes of community meetings and federal and municipal actions necessary to seeing this type of study through. It is also fascinating to look at the five examples on Google street view to see what changes have taken place since the study was done thirty years ago.
“…the quick jump in national automobile ownership – from 2,490,932 in 1915 to 9,239,161 in 1925 – meant that alleys were no longer required as access for horses, barns, and stables with their manure smells and animal noises…alleys were out.”