Capitol Hill's Alley Experiments

As related in the previous post on Capitol Hill's alleys, their inherently less public nature creates a social environment distinct from that of their associated streetscapes. Furthermore, this distinct environment has fostered experimentation in the design of alley landscapes and buildings. While not in the avant-garde, these experiments can nonetheless be seen as a foil to the more ordered and regular streetscapes they are paired with. Some alley experiments are simply whimsical and relatively ephemeral in nature, others relatively daring in their re-conceiving of typical alley elements into bolder more modern constructs, exploiting the alley as a vehicle for design exploration.

One impetus for alley experiments is found in the blending & compacting of roadway, sidewalk, and landscape into an area of less girth than our streets, and, therefore, to lesser expectations for openness and transparency. An indicator of this variance with the normative can be seen in the retaining walls that frequently demise the alley, but at a scale and opacity rarely seen on streets. Such robustness results from the fact that alleys and their walls are frequently used to terrace grades along our hilly landscape. Charged with retaining massive amounts of earth, alley walls cannot be bothered with the niceties of pedestrian scale and detail that are incumbent street side, and are therefore able to more efficiently discharge their duty. Pictured below is a landscape wall that directly and unapologetically dispenses with its retaining chores, and is a good representative of the normative condition.

On Capitol Hill's alleys such large retaining walls often contain other service elements, including garages. Combining programmatic elements is perhaps only mildly experimental, and is much like the wall-garage combinations in Capitol Hill's Harvard historic district. The wall-garage combo pictured below deftly combines it various services, and to the extent possible, is traditionally detailed and landscaped. And though thoughtfully executed and within the stylist expectations of the neighborhood, such a length of predominantly blank wall would cause an outcry if it were on the street and would be seen as an affront to neighborliness. On the alley, however, such a carefully designed wall/garage/landscape can actually be seen to be in the best of taste.

Just up the alley  from the above example (next door to it, in fact) is a decidedly modernist interpretation of the same typology. And most likely for the same traditional type of home that the above serves. Bold in its geometry and Spartan in detail, its design is most certainly not derivative of the home is serves, and provides a contemporary counterpoint to what is typically seen on the street in this section of Capitol Hill. The only relief to the mass of the wall is the setting back of the three garage doors and one pedestrian door, both similar to the previous example, but again, lacking the architectural embellishments.

Not all alley experiments are so willful. While it is hard to miss the above two examples, alley experiments appear in smaller, subtler ways, with the glass block wall below a fine example. Glass block and good design are not typically uttered in one sentence, glass block  perhaps the most abused of modernist tropes; yet, pictured below is an attractive use of this beleaguered material as one is to find on the Hill. Here, the adjacent bamboo blends in perfectly with the wall; its distinctive, modernist lines adeptly blending with the lines of the glass block.

Fortunately, such modernist expressions are not restricted to the landscape. Entire modernist buildings are realized in our alleys, allowing for the fulfillment of the latent modernist design leanings of homeowners -- leaning that they are otherwise too timid to express street side where they would be in full view of watchful neighbors whose design prerogatives most likely lean toward maintaining the decorum  of the otherwise traditional homes and landscapes. Alleys, on the other hand, are the perfect crucible for those having the vision -- but not necessarily the brashness -- to pepper a bit of contemporary in our neighborhood.

And it not simply modernist deviants that are to be found in our alleys. There are hyper-craftsman buildings  as well, where the vocabulary of the quintessential Seattle home is taken almost to extremes, and certainly closer to its proximate oriental influences. Not that such a finely crafted garage as picture below would be out of place on the street, but the fact that it is an alley dweller makes its discovery ever more delightful. That such care and craft would be expended on a 'mere' utilitarian object, bespeaks the importance of utility in our lives.

The most singular design example of alley experimentation I came across in this admittedly small section of Capitol Hill was perhaps one that expressed none of the previous mentioned dualities; in fact, it was an example of a home whose landscape and architectural expression on the alley make it indistinguishable from that on the street. Admittedly, it does take some means to maintain decorum on both street and alley frontages, but it also takes a bit of s contrarian stand, in that this homeowner does not feel the need to distinguished between servant and served . Those of similar means have chosen a different route, as witnessed by the to imposing garages at the beginning of this post, which are across from the one below.

Despite of, or perhaps because of, Capitol Hill's heterogeneous alley landscape the above building and landscape I found to be the most compelling. The simplicity of its form and the honest expression of its  utility are captivating, its patinaed brick cladding matching that of the alley and the low landscape wall. While not experimental itself, it forms the quintessential alley building/landscape prototype against which to measure those homeowners who are more experimentally inclined, making the above artist forays resonant, and grounding them within a larger cultural context.

Up next -- (one of) Capitol Hill's Secret Alley.


Capitol Hill’s Alley Landscapes, Planned or Otherwise

Alleys have a certain alluring, intimate quality to them, owing to their lesser width and traffic as well as their less intentional nature. Typically associated with the denser, more urban parts of a city, Seattle has an extensive network of alleys not only in its downtown but also in many of its residential neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill. Close-by Portland, by comparison, has only one sizable neighborhood with alleys, Ladd's Addition. Here on Capitol Hill, we not only have alleys, but alleys forming a network that is extensive and diverse, presenting fertile ground for the urban explorer.  In fact, the network is so diverse that today's is the first of several posts on the topic -- and all on alleys in only one corner of the Hill: east of 15th, west of 22nd, north of Thomas, and south of Galer.

First and foremost, alleys are about service, and are the home of utility poles, recycling bins, garages, and other sundries that allow us to not only efficiently run our lives but to do so in a manner that keeps streets presentable and less cluttered. This prescribed, service role occurs within a variety of landscapes, ranging from compacted gravel roads -- more akin to a country lane than an urban way -- to alley landscapes that are meticulously cared for and brick-paved. While any given street landscape may possess such variety, the alley landscapes depicted here possess it within a more compact range -- and sometimes only within a single block -- oftentimes belying the apparent uniformity presented by the associated street frontages.

Some alley landscapes differ little from street landscapes: a manicured lawn, fence for privacy, a flight of steps; rubbish bins and vehicles tucked within a garage and out of view. Other alley landscapes lack any apparent order, with life’s detritus arrayed in full view.When structures are present, they are may be reflections of those of their street-counterpart, being made of the same materials and details, and of similar proportion and form. Oftentimes, such alley-structures occur within lush landscapes one expects of the best cared for gardens, enveloping the alley. In such instances, the building-landscape combination creates a spatial intimacy unrivaled on Capitol Hill.


In addition to providing functional space on the alley, Capitol Hill’s alleys provide functional space above the alley, as witnessed by the many pruned trees, which allow for utility lines to pass unimpeded. Rough in execution and unsatisfactory in appearance, if there were no alleys to host utility lines, our robust, heatlhy, and prevalent street trees would be shorter and less healthy, yielding to the pruners of utility providers.

Landscape, however, is not always what yields. Left unchecked, many of the elements within the alley yield to landscape, their useful life expired. Once amenities to homeowners, such artifacts provide a narrative to the way we conducted our everyday lives. Even without the moss and decaying concrete, built objects in the alley inherently have a landscape quality to them; or, a primacy and unassuming beauty that blurs the distinction between natural and constructed. Much as one may consider a rural landscape scenic for its teetering barns, coops, and sagging fences, the evolution of built alley into landscape furthers romantic sentiments.

This reclaiming of the built by the landscape is not limited to smaller utilitarian objects. Walls, stairs, and even entire buildings can be seen in various phases of reclamation. Without the societal scrutiny that streets receive, and even in this affluent section of Capitol Hill, such reclamation is common and not unexpected within the alley environment.

Once the landscape has taken hold, constant attention is warranted to fend off its tireless advances. Attention that a homeowner typically exercises -- with greater societal relevance and effectiveness -- on the street side. This difference in stewardship echoes the dichotomy between servant and served, between alley and street, and between back and front.

Being screened from the public’s full scrutiny has lead to another interesting and wholly unexpected characteristic -- one of experimentation in landscape and building -- where one finds newer constructs of a totally differing characteristic than expected, and the subject of the next post.