A combination of strategies to reduce heat islands as well as to reclaim and make use of urban space has recently sparked people’s interest in reinventing the alley. Building on this, the Maison de l’architecture du Québec’s exhibition Réinventons la ruelle! invites us attendees down a conceptual alley to explore significance and potential uses.
The exhibition consists primarily of models laid out atop two rows of horse-benches with the main visitor trajectory – of a proportionate width to the model layouts – going between the rows along an east-west axis. The effect of this layout is that we visitors feel as if we are walking down an alley and looking into people’s backyards. Within these backyards are an intriguing array of vernacular forms, theoretical constructs, borrowed elements and reinterpreted structures.
In Atelier Barda’s backyard model on the south side of the alley, Petit ferme entre amis, there is an inspiring adaptation of a traditional Montreal coal shed, many of which were destroyed by fire and were all but eradicated as part of the city’s lane greening initiative in the 1980’s, Place du Soliel. This particular shed’s height and form reflects a consumptive based spatial relationship with the triplex it serves, but instead of providing the residence with coal for heating, each floor is arranged for small-scale urban farming: raising small livestock and vegetables. The shed is set on an angle to the triplex and consists of little more than structural components so as to emit light and allow for adequate airflow. This backyard intervention effectively reinterepts the vernacular of the Montreal coal shed, applying it with a whimsical yet sustainable and productive property.
Across the alley is another backyard project that harks on the vernacular of alleys. The »Passer sa vie sur les cordes à linges», by Huma design and architecture, consists of clothespins: 2500 pins clipped to 84 metal clotheslines and encased in transparent plastic. An evidently conceptual piece, the clothes pin yard reminds us of the beauty in the everyday objects and uses of the alley, indeed of the importance alleys serve in routine practices. The conceptual and figurative qualities of this model furthermore suggest possible ritual elements of an alley, through repetition and reinforcement of the clothespin’s role.
Continuing along the lane, on both sides of the alley we come to more than one model that tastefully incorporates the garage door. Garages are found commonly along more commercial and affluent alleys that have evolved to accommodate vehicles. Still, I suspect the designers of M3, Paul Bernier Architecte, as well as others project designers, took a more contemporary cue: the now standard glass panelled garage doors used to open bistro, bar, cafe and restaurants onto the street, effectively connecting street life with the otherwise internalized activity of shops. The models incorporating these doors suggest a similar possibility: the possibility of engaging neighbours and allowing for the creation of a more fluid connection between alleys and backyards, public lanes and private yards.
Crossing the lane we come to Sergio Clavijo-Division’s Repository-me, fittingly made from an airline food container, as the project conveys ideas adapted from the gorgeous & prosaic cinematic musings of far-flung Hong Kong’s Won Kar Wai. Within this backyard appears a wall, a barrier of rammed earth covered with moss and lichens suggesting the yard’s maturation and enrichment over time. Holes in the wall are intended for people to whisper into and leave secrets behind. I must confess that I shared some of my own thoughts with this model: Montreal alleys should be reinvented, and perhaps reinterpreted as galleries, quasi-public venues for neighbours to promenade through and, if desired, open up their enclosed spaces so as to upon occasion share ritual, practice and ideas with their community.
Each back yard model suggests various design possibilities and potential for alley interaction. The sum total of all the backyards and in effect the layout of the exhibit itself reveals invigorating possibilities for reinventing the alley.