Alleys of Seattle

Osaka and Ise

Posted in Japan by seattlealleys on November 15, 2010



After exploring the arcades, streets, and public spaces of gray and commercial Osaka, I realized it too was at once the capital of Japan.  It was once a porous city sliced by canals and moats in grid patterns about the city like a super Venice.
The astounding amount of neon at night in any alley, small street, arcade, or even under raised train tracks is testament to supply meeting demand. After a rooftop view, Osaka is endless and dense, yet the population supports its’ maximization. Perhaps koolhaas should have wrote delirious Osaka or delirious Tokyo with a cut through many parts of the city showing buildings with tiny footprints and a lift having different businesses on every floor even if it is 15 feet wide and ten storeys.

In the polar opposition to this cultural phenomena, my good friend, Masaru Sunagawa and I made a pilgrimage into the mountains east of Kyoto to see Ise, the resting place of the oldest religious building in Japan, and the birthplace of Japan shintoism.  You can only approach the first gate and the second if you are the president or a vip. The shrine is rebuilt every twenty years, the time it takes for trees to grow and new skilled workers to be trained. The buildings have no nails and float sturdily above the moisture laden forest floor. The roof is made up of hollow straws laid over one another functioning as insulation, a slick surface for shedding water (due to the latent moisture in straw), and an escape for the smoke burned within that protects from mosquitos.

I am now off to my hotels public bath in Tokyo looking like Bill Murray in lost in translation due to my way too tiny bath slippers and kimono.

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Kyoto day 2

Posted in Uncategorized by seattlealleys on November 14, 2010


A day spent in the alleys and canal edges of Gion, the old entertainment district of Kyoto, where retail has compacted the storefront into a three foot deep experience that typically would require twelve in the west. Shades, screening, gardens, drainage, and displays are integrated in a tight unison.  The thickness of the wall is the journey from the realm of the city to the realm of the merchant.

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Kyoto day 1

Posted in Japan by seattlealleys on November 11, 2010



After an interesting trip in the dark from kansai to kyoto and a semi direction less walk through turn of the century kyoto row houses, I was able to find my lodgings on the second floor of an old michayi house where tatami lines the floor and most doors slide in ways you couldn’t imagine at 3am when trying to locate the toilet.
I began my day walking through the nishiki market, a 5 block long alley of sorts that carries a colorful glass cap hung from a large truss that carries electrical along with structural services. This market has every kind of food imaginable from pickled goods to octopus head.

The next destination was the much anticipated pontocho street, a 10 foot wide pedestrian path that has housed shops, restaurants and the geisha quarter for hundreds of years. The old screened, and tiled roofs along here coalesce with modern neon signs hanging everywhere advertising the various places to eat that are tucked into every vacant space facing the street.

After walking the pontocho, I moved one block east to the refreshing kama, the cascading canal like river that splits kyoto east ave west. People gather on the bank to relax and enjoy the water.

After suvset, I walked the pontocho again studying the effect of the neon and lanterns on the tough facade surfaces. Also the presence of business people and tourists here after dark transforms it into a hustling and bustling space of the senses with the heightened ability to smell the cooking in trapped air, the sounds with the lack of traffic noise, and heat off backs of kitchens with the occasional gust off the river at a view point that breaks the street wall. Tomorrow, I will explore the gion quarter.

Japan itinerary

Posted in Japan by seattlealleys on November 7, 2010

Beginning this Tuesday, November 9th, I will embark on my last fellowship trip to Japan.  I will be visiting Kyoto first, then Tokyo via Osaka and the Ise shrine. My journey will last two weeks, please find my itineraries below and email me with any additional places you think I should see. Stay tuned for what should be the greatest alley adventure yet!

Also, the application deadline for the upcoming 2011 emerging professional travelling fellowship is December 15. Feel free to contact me regarding the application or anything else.

Melbourne overview

Posted in Melbourne by seattlealleys on November 6, 2010

From the graffiti-lined AC/DC Lane, to the retaraunts of China Town, and the shopping streets of Degraves Lane, to the hangout of Centre Place, Melbourne was an incredible city of alleys and public space in general.  This type of urbanism is not attainable without prolific planning, policy, and organic development.  This network of alleys is a model city for any flatiron grid city seeking to re-invigorate their back-alleys and side streets.

Melbourne day 4

Posted in Melbourne, Pioneer Square by seattlealleys on October 13, 2010

After a breath-taking day on the Great Ocean Road and more than one unforgettable experiences including a wild koala encounter, yesterday was spent exploring the laneways further discovering the incredible policies with which the city has literally transformed itself to catalyze an urban rennaisance in the last ten years. Delving into the policy of accepting graffiti as public art form, the transformation of liquor licensing to catalyze bars and destinations in every nook and cranny imaginable has created a city of urbanity.  The inclined individual could spend a year exploring all the hidden gems.

I was fortunate to be able to speak to architect Sean Godsell in his office on Exhbition Street about Melbourne and his impression of the laneways.  He seemed to enjoy the unique qualities of the city and said when he tries to go to a destination, he always takes the laneways as they offer a more human capillary form of movement through the city.  He also said that the laneways are the biggest success for the city’s programs to pedestrianize and are a huge part of the identity of Melbourne.

I would like to thank Andrea Kleist, of the City of Melbourne’s Arts and Culture branch.  She explained to me the ten year history of their Laneway Commissions, a program that reaches out to the arts community by providing an open competition for artists that allows them to pick their site and project.  This is different than Sydney’s By George! arts commissions as it allows creative freedom and thus maintains a steady stream of interesting applicants every year.  This is fantastic as it complements everything the planners, architects, and engineers are doing to transform the city.  I will give a more detailed description of this decade-long program after reviewing the myriad documentation that the Public Arts Program gave me, thank you so much!

This is the kind of thing Seattle could be incredibly capable of doing.  We have a large supply of artists, and a fairly steady stream of public arts commissions through 4culture, and various neighborhoods.  The alleys could become a curated set of galleries fostering fantastic video, performance, installation, and site-specific art.  It could run for the summer months annually.

Speaking of, I would like to thank everyone again for attending the Firehouse Alley activation party last Thursday.  Richard Tran of the AIA Seattle Design Committee (above) and Justin Martin of SvR snapped some great shots of the activity shown below.  This is only the beginning for this alley and Seattle’s alleys in general!

Melbourne day 3

Posted in Melbourne by seattlealleys on October 10, 2010

Another day embedded in the fine grain – there are endless adventures within this city.  After a trip south to St. Kilda beach, I explored more laneway bar culture with a visit to the famous Cherry Bar in ACDC Lane, formerly Corporate Lane.  The city changed the name about 15 years ago in honor of the local legends.

Today, I spent a good part of the day in my new favorite alley of all my travels thus far – Centre Place.  This place is incredibly rich.  Apparently, it used to be a prime shortcut from the main train station to the next main road.  This alley has incredible shops with simple roll down doors, the city’s bluestone pavers, copious amounts of shipping boxes for stools, and great bars above the street as well, including Hell’s where I spent a good three hours documenting activities in this beautiful urban space.  It may be a prime candidate for a physical model demonstrating the potential of alleys and existing buildings’ capacity to become open and usable.

Melbourne day 2

Posted in Melbourne, Uncategorized by seattlealleys on October 9, 2010

Laneway culture is intense here.  The city has the perceptual feel and grain of a medeival city, yet stuck into a 90 degree grid network.  Down about half of the alleys, you will find a restaurant, secret bar, or coffeehouse.  After meeting with Robert Moore, head urban planner for the city council of Melbourne, I realize this is not a historic thing.  This has been a slow transformation since the 1980’s lead by a visionary collaboration between the city and Gehl architects, and a series of consultants.  The city has tried to draw the creative class back into the city with the slow building of residential buildings and the upgrading of streets, parks, and laneways.  They have a huge focus on public space that really is perceivable as you move through the city.

Regarding the amazing myriad of cool bars in lane ways, I had a great discussion with the bar staff at Sister Bella, off a hidden alley regarding the role of the liquor license in this culture.  Depending on the length of operation per day, you pay more for a license.  There is a sweet deal between lower lease rates for back alley spaces, the right license, and the right degree of food or drink to be served that determines if a bar is profitable enough to try out for potential investors.  Sister Bella is owned by one of the original lane way bar owners, St. Jerome, who has spawned an annual music festival that takes place in January in Melbourne, and now Sydney and a couple other major Australian cities.  I was also fortunate to be lead to the Croft Institute, an old chemistry lab in a back alley that has maintained the vibe with a plethora of chemistry measuring tools, beakers, etc. strewn about the bar in jewel cases.  You find it by going down a c-shaped dead-end alley then heading up a flight of stairs in what I assume is the fire-stair for the building.  They have another floor 3 floors up.  This type of space lends the city the feeling of a real collage.  Pictures to be posted when I am back!

ALSO, THANKS TO ALL THAT ATTENDED THE ALLEY PARTIES ON THURSDAY! I am sorry I was unable to be there but please see the overview of how it went down here –

Melbourne day 1

Posted in Melbourne by seattlealleys on October 7, 2010

After only half a day in Melbourne, I am overwhelmed at the myriads of laneways and their contents.  Instead of moving down a block laterally on the street elevations, you can weave constantly through and around them thanks to the hundreds of lanes.  It’s a medieval city on a 90 degree grid.  There are plenty of cool little things tucked in everywhere from ad-hoc galleries, to Chinese family restaurants, to adult stores, to posh clubs and bars.

Upon arrival, I sat my map on my bedside table, and decided to let intuition take me around.  I proceeded to get very lost and do about two loops.  The architecture, street life, and preservation efforts here are incredible.  It is less polished, yet more layered in many ways than Sydney.  It is almost Parisian.  I will continue the hunt today

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Sydney overview

Posted in Sydney, Uncategorized by seattlealleys on October 6, 2010

Australia is hard to put a finger on – or even, understand.  Sydney felt a bit like New York, a bit like London, and a bit like San Francisco.  It is expensive, peninsular, and teeming with various cultures.  The blocks in the central business district, and general center run north-south into a few fingers of land with the historic Rocks/Circular Quay area, the Opera House, and a fantastic botanical garden reaching out or yielding to the bay.

Alleys here are on the rise to catch up to Melbourne’s advanced laneway culture.  I met with architect/planner Craig Allchin, of Six Degrees, and now a consultant to the city of Sydney. He explained to me the formal history of the city, its latent problems, and how the mayor has recently taken a liking to laneways and begun catalyzing their habitation through various financial stiumuls programs, specifically one for the encouragement of small bars, which Craig refers to as “the cafes of the night”.  These types of spaces are seriously lacking in many of the American cities I have looked at, especially Seattle.  Craig began his alley affair with the opening of one of the first laneway bars in Melbourne (check the link above and find Meyer’s Place Bar) with five other recent architecture graduates a number of years ago.  After the success of this, along with a few other factors, Melbourne has transformed into the most amazing collection of revitalized service lanes out of any other Western cities I have seen. It looks to set the bar high for a competitor.

An amazing alley art series is curated annually, with the most recent just debuting a couple months back, there are some fantastic pieces that transform the mundane Sydney laneway into a unique urban encounter.  Due to no phone, or upload access, these blog entries will for th most part be textual until my return on the 16th,

Last night, I paid a visit to small business of the year, Grasshopper, a fantastic two-level bar and restaurant off the tiny and sketchy looking Temperance Lane off George Street.  This space used to be a printing press area and due to the new bar stimulating program, has taken off into a fantastic little place.  I also visited Via Abercrombie in Abercrombie Lane, which was essentially what looked like a garbage room transformed by lining the walls with cabinets and placing a table in the middle into a very popular lunch-time sandwich spot.  Both of these places were fantastic to sit in and see the engagement with the laneway, and the city fabric itself.  These places were very uncharacteristic of the otherwise service-oriented lanes throughout the city.

I see a parallel in Sydney to the Seattle alley cause, as they are trying to transform something that has been utilitarian into something that aspires to be more.  The city’s acceptance of Craig’s ideas and the successes of Melbourne is very encouraging to the Seattle future.  These types of spaces really begin to add an entirely new layer to the perception and attractiveness of a downtown.  We have endless potential – off to Melbourne!