I started thinking that it’s almost like trying to gather important memories, that you have to look for memories in something like gravel, something so indistinct from far away and so varied up close that it’ll make your head spin . . . that each part of the soul is made up of infinite parts, like shards of glass, like gravel, like the surface of the wall.1
—Giulio Mozzi, “Glass”
I have a fondness for alleys… an extension of an old love affair with post-industrial architecture and raw materials. I seek them out as palette cleansers, as places to exercise a sense of wonder in the anomalies to be found there. Alleys have stories to unearth and theories to project in mismatched brick infill and faded, phantom numbering; in metal bosses and escutcheons long since divorced from their structural burdens; in profiles of demolished chimneys and rooflines still telegraphing through mortar. What would normally be perceived as an ugliness that demands cosmetic concealment, remediation, or demolition in places of visual prominence, in alleys is left to languish (or thrive) in its own devices.
But beneath the layers of applied social and historical connotation, alleys contain a certain romance and mystery. Typically defined by the most unassuming façades of other built entities, they are the metaphorical vascular system of the urban body. They are both intentional and residual products—solids and voids—formed by nature of their functions, yet not always in adherence to a defined system. They are seen as commonplace, if seen at all.
Alleys, however, have two modes. Passively, they garner an ambivalent reaction, and we are content to accept them as a measure of normalcy. In this, alleys are tantamount to ordinary. But when we actually pass through them, and are thus actively confronted, our suspicions are roused. We question what exists under the neutral façade. Ironically, the ordinary in alleys presents itself as liminal—both refuge and threat—when by definition it should be neither.
Alleys are intimately entwined with Chicago’s urban origins. They appear in the original 1830 plats as an eighteen-foot-wide corridor intended to provide all buildings with rear service access. Had the mandate been strictly executed and enforced, one could argue that alleys would have reflected an unsettling ordinariness more in alignment with the formal definition: identical, standardized arteries lacing through the center of each city block, running parallel to the main public thoroughfares of Chicago’s famed grid system. But as the city expanded, developers deviated from the standard. Areas to the south were erected rapidly and haphazardly to accommodate the growing working and immigrant communities (who often used the outdoor envelopes of alleys as public extensions of their own private spaces); this activity was paralleled, but far from mirrored, in the construction on the north side, where the affluent built their weekend homes without alleys in an effort to abolish any possibility of what was increasingly perceived as “alley culture.”2
Thus, alleys in Chicago, as in most other cities, evolved organically: as a general product of function and construction, but with modulations in dimension, materiality, position, and construction, readily changed to suit the needs of its neighbors and occupants. Fluxing along their entire lengths, they cut a byzantine pattern in the city’s figure ground, contributing to its unmistakable appearance in plan without serving as the primary warp and weft of the fabric.
Variety of this nature does not necessarily disprove ordinariness. It does, however, suggest alleys are an embodiment of the statistical notion of ergodicity, which is appropriate given the term’s etymology: Greek words for “work path.” Ergodicity is used to describe systems that, when averaged along the course of their progression, yield a singular result. For example, in a “random walk” model, individuals may independently follow arbitrary routes through a fixed group of city blocks; they will inevitably hit every intersection and travel every street—it is only the duration of the process that varies. A random walk of alleys, spent gathering impressions of the surroundings, would for some quickly yield the whole—a closed loop of imagery that signifies “alley.” It is, however, a question of scale; in an ergodic model, parts should substantially exemplify the whole. In the case of alleys, a trick happens when we compare cross sections outside the continuity. Consumed in these smaller segments, they clearly show their intricacies and diversities to such a degree that it would be impossible for a single fragment to stand as representative.
One of the earliest uses of the term ordinary refers to heraldry. Ordinaries were both the geometric subdivisions in coats of arms and the fields of color to which they were applied; they were defined by a strict set of graphic guidelines, but ambiguous in their recognition as solid or void.
This gestalt nature is similarly manifested in alleys, as functional containers that register as voids in a Nolli map. In another fashion, they are generic spaces and semiotic signifiers of banality that are simultaneously a collection of disparate and perpetually changing elements assembled along a path. Considered in terms of platonic solids, alleys are composed of a ground plane, paved or raw, two open planes of the horizon, sky or ceiling plane, and two planes formed by the back facades of adjacent buildings. Each of these surfaces inherently possesses its own uniqueness, in independent and dynamic states of change.3 Those two lateral elements, made of infinite permutations of masonry, glass, and metal—and which in other configurations enclose churches, theaters, and monuments—do not predetermine its identity as a whole.
The gestalt modes co-exist, but the liminal nature of such duality is not without conflict. Like a camera lens flickering in and out of focus from background to foreground, our faculties of recognition oscillate between the two states to align with our mindset at the time. Do we first perceive the chaos and the visceral sensations, which coalesce into a singular and daunting urban nature, and balk? Or are we struck with the impression of starkness, which beckons us to look more closely, notice the idiosyncrasies and delve deeper?
Not subject to what David Leatherbarrow refers to as “architectural epiphanies” and “aesthetic obligations,” elevations that define alleys are unapologetically minimal, driven by the logics of construction, functionality, and economy.4 They lack the space and audience to justify a deliberately aesthetic countenance, and so have the freedom to merge or clash with their contexts. In modern construction, utilitarian materials are left raw, or detailed more simply, in an effort to limit expense, maintenance requirements, or security concerns. The result may then be a section of concrete bearing the marks of its connection and formwork, or CMU serendipitously picking up the rhythm of adjacent brick coursework without deliberately matching it. In older construction, back facades may be the sole surface of a building untouched—recessed guttering and grillage aged to a lurid green revealing techniques long since forgotten or rendered obsolete.
The results are not always beautiful or orthodox, but they are usually interesting; alleys seen in this light could be conceived as both museums and laboratories for material combinations and adjacencies, methods of assembly and detailing. But in another light, alleys are urban canyons—broken glass, vegetation clinging to the fragile mortar joints, with a single swath of sky above: more products of time and erosion, with human intervention to architectonic formations what glaciers are to geology. Again: raw super-nature registered through a Kantian impression of the sublime.
Elegant decay may not merit such dramatic description to some—and in honesty, this piece is not intended to proselytize the hidden virtues of all alleys—but it does advocate a sense of optimism, and encourages recognition of the latent potential in the everyday. We need baselines and backgrounds by which to gauge any condition, a sense for boredom to counterbalance and enhance appreciation for excitement. The very nature of any activity witnessed in an alley—where one does not expect to see anything—lends a sense of heightened drama. Certain media, and particularly film, masterfully captures the phenomenon of potency and extraordinary beauty in the seemingly ordinary and ritually overlooked. The lone, elderly figure that appears prominently but briefly in several of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s films is an acknowledgement of that ideal—and a challenge to consider why, in the midst of so much other beauty, this individual is also worth our attention.
And consider this: glamour in its modern manifestations is generally assigned to objects and places that are alluring, attractive, and special. Its secondary connotation is less positive; a permutation of Norse and Scottish words that tie it to illusion and obfuscation, spells of the eye meant to conceal true natures. In that vein, is it so difficult to see ordinary as glamour, and alleys as extraordinary? We would do well to keep ourselves open; there may be something truly remarkable lying in plain sight within the gravel and brick.