Inverse City

If streets and boulevards are the arteries of the city, laneways are its capillaries. There’s a high energy in the laneways, both distaff and invigorating. A city’s laneways and alleyways provide the best and the worst a city can offer–urban intimacies sans faade, in both heartwarming and bone-chilling modalities.

If you walk the laneways and alleyways, you see a city back to front, an inverse city pulled inside out like a sweater. My introduction to the urban pastoralism of the laneway began 15 years ago, when I wrote an article for Toronto Life magazine called “Midnight’s Children” about a gaggle of hectic young bicyclists who called themselves the Back Alley Boys (later changed to the Alley Cats) who insisted I travel with them on one of their typical nocturnal rounds. “We ride at night because the city is emptier then and lonelier,” the leader of these romantic, two-wheeled Peter Pans explained to me. And as puerile as all this night-riding seemed to me at the time, it did offer a kind of fragrance of the urban literary: “…people sitting out at three in the morning and guys fixing their cars, their flashlights glowing inside upraised hoods, and lovers embracing and the smell of next day’s bread baking….”

What kind of city did the Back Alley Boys show me? “A pastoral one, certainly,” I wrote, “almost a 19th-century city, a gothic, chiaroscuro city like Batman’s Gotham City, full of sleep and shadows and anarchy, put together in an age of iron; a city of bridges and looming towers and speaking not at all of the daytime city made of webs of circuitry and the mounting-up of information.”

There is a sense in which the laneways of a city always seem older than its streets and its front elevations, which of course are continually being recast. One of the most enjoyable texts ever written in this country about the perpetual charm and enduring, slow-motion importance of laneways is the late Harold Town’s book Albert Franck: Keeper of the Lanes (McClelland and Stewart, 1974), an affectionate study of the painter who, along with the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris, is best remembered as a virtuoso limner of Toronto’s alleyways and backyards. Franck died in 1973, and “like a dog, he barked away at the pretension of urban renewal.” Franck’s dark, moody paintings of laneways, fences and backsides of the old houses of downtown Toronto were painted with pigments that looked like damp wood and peeling housepaint. Beneath Franck’s populist, localizing brush, these paintings became what Town called “cathedrals of the ordinary, cocoons of the humdrum, painted as seriously as of they were primal structures, essential to a full understanding of man.”

Acknowledging the handsome laneway paintings of Lawren Harris, Town nevertheless notes that “Lawren Harris’s succulent slab-brushed Toronto streets are pretty in comparison to Franck’s. For in Harris’s works such as Houses, Richmond Street and Yellow Sleigh, city grime is missing, the subject is secondary to the act of painting.” With Franck, Town argues, “the models for his work and the act of painting run a closer race.” Town goes on to remark that “the laneway is a tentative divide, cautious and grudging–if we look away the buildings will snap together.”

There was a time, a decade ago, when I had high hopes for an infill building scheme that traded on that very concept–fanciful in the metaphorical mind of Harold Town but real enough as a minor utopian esprit de jour–that, given the volatile, highly charged nature of the laneway conduits through the city’s spreading outwash energies, it might nevertheless be possible and desirable to line (and overarch) these fissures and crevasses with structures that would snap together like Lego blocks. The idea, licensed by Toronto-based entrepreneur Ben Kutner from Dutch architect Piet Blom (1934-1999), was a prefabricated steel and glass version of a housing scheme Blom had first designed in 1974 for the small Dutch city of Helmond.

Blom’s program involved balancing one point of a cube on a stem, like a dancer en pointe. Blom was apparently galvanized into this idea when one of the Helmond locals rather brusquely suggested that the town didn’t need an architect. “The people of this region,” this worthy claimed, “don’t need any more than a tree to live in!” These tiptoe cubes were divided horizontally into three floors, each generously punctuated with windows so that while all of the walls sloped, the view from each window was either a diagonal look down into the sublunary world below or an angled, unimpeded gaze up into the heavens. Nobody in a Blom cube ever looked straight into a next-door neighbour’s space.

The project came more fully to fruition in Rotterdam (1978-84) with a cellular nest of Blom cubes built, bridge-like, up and over the former bed of the River Blaak–in fact, one of the project’s nicknames was “The Rotterdam Ponte Vecchio.” Although rather too chalet-like in feeling for Kutner’s techno-urban vision for Toronto, the Blaak project was the basis for his plan to snap together nets of Blom cubes and string them down Toronto’s laneways, across the empty roofs of the city’s industrial buildings, and up and over its expressways–over any building space, in fact, where the need for a structural footprint could be transcended and literally overlooked. Unfortunately, nothing much came of it. There are still two prototype Blom cubes erected on a wedge of land at Sumach Street and Eastern Avenue in Toronto–where they have degenerated, sadly, into overdetermined volumetric hoardings, now supporting nothing but signage.

Perhaps a city’s laneways should simply remain inviolate: dark arteries like the neural paths of a city’s unconscious, fetid id-lanes beneath and behind the ego of accelerating urbanism? But architects love the challenge of building where others have not, cannot, would not. There is irresistible appeal in the creative overturning of Philip Johnson’s cynical quip, “Architecture is the art of how to waste space.” (New York Times, Dec. 27, 1964)

The whole awakening of laneway consciousness has been a long time coming. Architect George Baird was instrumental in generating a 1974 report called Onbuildingdowntown: Urban Design Guidelines for the Central Area of Toronto, its title cunningly compacted to act as a typographical emblematizing of “intensification.” Along with architect Barton Myers, he was early into the game, editing of issue #108 of the Design Quarterly, subsequently published as Vacant Lottery (1977) and dedicated to Jane Jacobs.

Last year, with the aid of a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation grant, Toronto-based architects Terence Van Elslander and Jeffery Stinson (begetter of the Prototypical Urban Family House, 1989) submitted their ambitious report showcasing four different designs for compact two- and three-storey houses. The Globe and Mail writer Jane Gadd proffered that these houses can be built “on lots severed from the foot of people’s gardens without interfering with privacy or detracting from parking or sight lines,” a scheme that “throws down the gauntlet to a new city government with a stated policy of increasing affordable housing and ‘densifying’ downtown.”

This year saw the release of Site Unseen: Laneway Architecture & Urbanism in Toronto. The book was “born of a Masters option studio at the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design” otherwise known as the Laneway Studio, and was edited by Brigitte Shim and Donald Chong. Published by the university, it is a kind of handbook or primer bristling with ideas about the degree to which, in Shim and Chong’s prefatory remarks, Site Unseen might “act as a catalyst for emergent possibilities of intensification. In the last decade the laneway–or alley–has demonstrated, albeit infrequently the opportunity to generate thoughtful and regenerative architectural insertions in Toronto. Here, the city’s laneway systems are recognized as a legitimate and potentially vast urban ‘resource’ offering a new, incremental urbanism.”

Site Unseen is an efficient and dense, yet remarkably engaging and tho
ught-provoking little book. It begins, fittingly, with an elegantly turned foreword by George Baird, current Dean of U of T’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. It then settles into its research component comprised of a series of essays with topics ranging from the history of Toronto’s urban form, to growth and density, where “the laneway becomes a new domestic urban frontier, adaptable to alternative housing options.” Charles Waldheim, Director of U of T’s Landscape Architecture program, has contributed a fine essay entitled “Urbanism in the Aggregate: Toronto Laneways and the Centrality of Marginal Practice.” Finally, the book concludes with a stimulating compendium of selected projects of the Brigitte Shim-supervised Laneway Studio. In this collection, provocative and charming mini-essays with seductive illustrations focus tightly and lyrically on such ad hoc alleyway encounters as “Parallel Corridors,” “Backyard Reading,” “Laneway Laundromat” in which clotheslines heavy with laundry span the width of the lane, and “Laneway Lantern” where an outrigger commercial light from the main streets spill usable radiance back into dark alleyways at night. The book ends with a dashing mosaic of photographs, each of which replays and reinvigorates the discourse that has come before.

Congruent with Shim and Chong’s aspirations for Site Unseen, a small but catalytic venture in post-urban (or re-urbanizing) adventuring in the city’s inner frontier, the book is nothing less than an indispensable travel guide to the inverse city. And as such, it galvanizes more questions than it either poses or answers.

Gary Michael Dault writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.