After being in Berlin for almost half a year now, I had been missing alleys. Berlin’s massive blocks with deep interior plots and parcels do not seem to, along with the population density, warrant the use of lanes or alleys. Instead courtyards are more common called “Hofs” or “Hoefer” – stay tuned for some documentation of these.
Over the winter break, I traveled with two good friends (Hayrettin and Hamed) through Istanbul, a vast city of 14 million – meaning nearly ten times the population of Manhattan in one city. This city’s multiple developments spanning over seven large hills or mountains has a collection of fabrics at a scale and variety I have only experienced perhaps similarly in Tokyo. The crossing of the Bosphorus on a daily basis is a ritual for many of the city’s inhabitants moving from their neighborhood to their work on the other side as my friend does. This breath of fresh sea air accompanied with many birds and a hot tea provides a vantage point that so struck Le Corbusier on his trip here as a young man in his journey to the east of 1911.
The myriad neighborhoods and their individual topography produce many different kinds of small streets, alleys, and terraced alleys running down the steeper inclines. All forms of program can be found including markets, stores, galleries, craftsman shops, vendors, and restaurants. These can be found at street level and more commonly a level above and below. Interesting unique aspects include tiny sidewalks if at all and the combination of foot and vehicular traffic through these tight spaces and a number of intimate alleys overgrown with grape vines overhead. A nice detail is the multiplicity of stray dogs and cats roaming these small streets, but they are not mangy, they are more treated as communal pets and give a nice warm layer of life to the city.
With the first year of a Master’s in Urban Design at Harvard’s GSD coming to an end, it’s time to update the alleys! I have had an incredible year focusing on the city as a global condition, and learning about infrastructure, landscape, sea level rise, and other bigger aspects of the designed environment than I ever dreamed I would. I have begun work on my first set of alley projects a ways away from home – in Miami.
I am returning to the first place of my alley research for the summer in San Francisco to work with Hart Howerton, a large planning and urban design firm who were kind enough to select me as one of two recipients for their annual fellowship program. I will work for a couple months before heading to Finland, Sweden, and Norway to research how the built environment grows from the culture of the Scandinavian landscape.
Following this study, which will of course look at aspects of tight urbanism in the traditional and contemporary pieces of cities I encounter in the far north, I will be heading to Berlin to take on a year long study funded by the German government’s DAAD grant program to investigate the societal value of craft and how it relates to the building culture of German architecture and urbanism.
I look forward to encountering alleys through these next adventures, so stay tuned for findings and progress in the alleys.
An excerpt from my journal during my first viist to Amsterdam last month:
Thus far, Amsterdam reminds me most of Kyoto, perhaps due to the jumble of condensed, narrow streets and thin reflective canals all walled in by tall, skinny tower-like buildings. When in Japan they were wood- they are stone here. Already, a sophisticated relationship to water is clear in the waterfront and canals and their many drawbridges.
This radial city is made up of a unique interwoven series of streets, alleys, and canals that intersect one another in a sort of sunrise pattern like grain. The water’s presence even down a tiny lane is surprising and lends a certain rhythm to traversing the town. Although, it is undoubtedly best to navigate these conditions by taking part in the swarm of bicyclists that are ubiquitous here.
The alleys are full of everything you’d expect them to be full of in Amsterdam – bars, coffee shops, and of course a very unique selection of storefronts in the red light district. It is interesting to think about Amsterdam without the primary streets – if the radial main thoroughfares were compressed down to three meters like most alleys, the relationship of the alley ways complete with bicycle lane down the middle, and the numerous canals would create a more formalized Venetian quality. I will post next about my experiences travelling through Italy for the first time last month. I am contemplating packaging my travel journal together and publishing it as an addendum to TIght Urbanism in the coming year, as I found many interesting things in the realm of architecture and the city.
The Seattle Design Festival was an honor to take part in. It was fantastic to see all the different design community members gathered in one place in the city, activating it, and attracting so much interest. This type of pop-up urbanism is what this city, and many others need. An event, while requiring planning, does not need the capital, bureaucratic process, and vision that a building needs and thus creates a unique type of community and urbanity that can build momentum for a neighborhood, block, or alley.
The pallet displays lived their life and served their purpose and were recycled after this exhibit, it’s fourth in the city after Belltown, Pioneer Square, and the International Distrixt. The boards are still available and in fine condition if you have an alley party or community meeting you wish to use them at, please let me know. Thank you to all who showed up at the Design Festival, and the friends who helped me put this all together.
Also, if you didnt’ catch the interview earlier this year, The Atlantic Cities blog featured a brief article on my work and views on alleys, check it out here.
Let me know if you’d like the whole hour and fifteen minute long movie and I would be happy to make the file available to you.
This is a great city. The relationship of built space to open space is fantastic despite immense density. The day began with a trip to Chinatown to meet with the Reverend Norman Fong, essentially the director of a large consortia of neighbirhood grassroots planning organizations called the Chinatown Development Commission. He went into great detail about the beginning of the Chinatown alley masterplan drafted with his help by a masters of landscape architecture candidate ten years ago (who now works for the city and I will be meeting with tomorrow) in response to severe neglect of the neighborhoods’ alleys.
My general interpretation of the city is a dominant east west grain, an incredible density to open space relationship. The individual districts and neighbirhoods weld together through infrastructural edges and topographic change.
The alleys thus far are at the most elementary analysis benefitted from their low adjacent building heights and slightly south of east west orientation. Tiny sidewalks line both sides providing a specifically pedestrian environment and a clear demarcation of the difference between the building owners land and the right of way. There seems to be a number of alleys that have the permitting in place to leave furniture in them during the day for restaurant use.
Below is a GPS log of my travels around the city that I am trying to include as part of my study in each city.
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.
In an amazing feat of temporary permitting, culture, and a big screen, Alley World Cup game 1 brought nearly 130 people into Nord Alley late this morning. This is the most people I’ve ever seen in an alley in Seattle at one time. Chairs were out, food was brought in from local vendors and restaurants and an apparently solid moment of civic space took place. These games will be played all week at 11:30, come check it out. This is Seattle alley urbanism at its best. I heard some great quips as the game ended specifically one gentleman saying, “this was awesome, and I didn’t even get murdered in the alley!’. This is a fantastic step towards changing the collective perception of the potential of these spaces.
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.”
I would like to thank my office, Perkins+Will, for their generosity in providing an additional $1000 to expand my study area to Chicago and San Francisco. I will be visiting these locations between July and August to document what’s going on in their alleys.
Perkins+will is celebrating their 75th anniversary this year and plans to launch a brand new site in early July. The innovation incubator grant is a new program set up by the national leadership institute to facilitate the endeavors and pursuits of individuals within the office striving to better the built environment. The alley project was one of about twenty to receive funding in this first round.