Rupturing time and space, alleyways reveal a side to the city the tourist sites never divulge
In Visual Planning and the Picturesque, originally commissioned by Hubert de Cronin Hastings in 1942 but unpublished until 2010, Nikolaus Pevsner describes the Queen’s Lane (an alleyway in all but name) as a series of events that form a whole epic. The alley is an expanded stage set that changes radically with every turn, taking you against the grain of the city. It starts wide, then narrow and twisting, the spatial rhythms persistently in a state of flux. There is then a modulating staccato stretch with picturesque views of Hawksmoor’s monumental All Souls College, before opening out slightly onto what appears to be a medieval market town. Next, crumbling walls, and finally, Wren’s Sheldonian framed by the Hertford Bridge overhead. The alleyway acts as director (or writer) and with each change of direction the walker is led through new layers and aspects of the city. Paths and heights of walls are a tacit stage direction to correctly position the feet and eyes, consequently cutting (panning, cross-cutting and zooming into) the distant urban landscape, in motion, like a film, into new dramatic scenes.
Cullen townscape shortcuts city tourism architectural review2
Humans are naturally disposed to walk in roughly straight lines. Our way to work and everyday routes are generally formed of single linear paths; with them come the reassurance that the end destination will always be reached. Conjured by accidental factors around them rather than planned with precision, alleyways are the opposite. As multicursal networks of unexpected journeys and events, they deviate and add twists to the storyline, with multiple branches and dead-ends that work to confuse, beguile and entertain inhabitants. Their convoluted geometric choreography allows a vacation from habitual conceptions of life and our journey through it. While tourist sights let you see the city, no better than a gaudy postcard might, hidden passages allow you to enter the inner mechanics of its perceptual construction.
‘With their accretions of history and myth, alleyways barely exist without the use of imagination’
Alleyways, like novels, rupture time and space – as a form of escape, both allow city dwellers (and readers) to pursue that ubiquitous fantasy of being unanchored, in exile, of going on holiday while still being in the comfort of their own home. Both deal in maze perception by mixing the familiar with the strange, propagating a continual sense of adventure and discovery by not revealing what’s coming around the next bend. Just like a passage of text takes the reader from one part of the action to the next, an alleyway in the city is a portal that can rapidly transport a city explorer from one urban condition to a radically different place, and in the process colour their understanding of it. Streets and roads are the main plot, but alleyways and shortcuts are its amorphous and mysterious subtext, an urban mise en abyme, a play-within-a-play, a fleeting subplot within the drama of a city you may already be familiar with.
As in Burroughs’ Algiers, Dickens’ London and Raymond Chandler’s LA, alleyways are usually typecast as the seedy underbelly of a place. They are distant from the manicured world of cosmetic tourism, presenting ‘reality’ without concealer. In their relentless pursuit of the ‘real’ they were of particular interest to naturalists like Zola (and later to Louis Aragon in his 1924 surrealist masterpiece, Paris Peasant), who set his scandalous 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin in the ‘funerary’ light of Passage du Pont-Neuf, Paris. The alley, only 30 paces long and two wide, for Zola, exposed the unseen landscape of unappreciated workers, arguments over property lines, corruption, financial and sexual transactions that the glittering surfaces of the commodity world beyond its confines otherwise strove to erase.
Source: Ralph Rumney
Alleyways uncover the alter ego of a city, they are its altered states of consciousness, and, just like any intoxicant, they stay with as you attempt to find your way home – whether temporary or permanent. How you enter a city is important and alleys allow for a numerous succession of re-entries to whichever city is being explored – they shade how it’s experienced as an entirety. Take the two very different exits from Marseille’s St Charles train station for example. By the main exit there is a confrontation with a touristic, orderly and clean grand vista; take a flight of stairs down into the basement with the locals, however, and you are delivered into the city through a warren of crepuscular passages that leave you with persistent afterimages that joyfully undermine the city’s more ordered grids and regulations. In a city perennially flitting between altered states (Marseille was, after all, where Walter Benjamin first took hashish), the walker oscillates between the identity of a local and a tourist with a perpetual reminder of its condition before it was sanitised.
With their accretions of history and myth, alleyways barely exist without the use of imagination: a strange liminal zone as fictional as a factual city can get. Homesick for her native Belgium, the film-maker Chantal Akerman described a forlorn reverie when, aged 21, she walked the peripheries of New York City. She filmed the journeys for her documentary News from Home in 1977, accompanied by her own voice-over reading letters from her worried and sometimes controlling mother. The film starts with a long, structuralist take of an alleyway, shading every street in her lonely city as the sprawling narrow roots of home; whether these roots suck up nutrients or poison is unclear. More than anything else, News from Home shows how alleyways can take us away from home, from familiar reality, while making us feel at home even when we aren’t – a level of absorption impossible in the glutted arteries of New York City.
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If it is possible to be somewhere else in an alley, it is also possible to pretend, even momentarily, to be someone else: a place where we can see ourselves, rather than the city, in a different way. An ideal site for first times and coming of age – omnifarious vectors of love, desire, transgression and fantasy. Also set in New York City, Jim Jarmusch’s first feature film, Permanent Vacation (1980), begins with shots of loud and crowded avenues, cut successively to a variety of quiet alleys where nobody is walking. Here, the alley is portrayed as a relief valve from the mania of the city, a place where the loner protagonist – aptly named Allie – can work himself out, away from the daily pressures of growing up. Here, the rectangular slimness of the alley is a spatial outline of the intimacy and interiority of his complementation, seemingly encouraging daydreaming and psychological drift; a tourist wandering behind the scenes in his own city, interacting with the eccentrics that give it vivid life, while in the process seeing the unfamiliar sights of his own body and personality. However, they are not completely detached from reality – Jarmusch uses them as optical devices through which to view the busy avenues, the ‘reality’. Framing the outside world into a sequence of foreign vignettes, the alley is cast as an architectural cinema screen to watch the city from a fictional distance.
Source: The Architectural Review
In Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now, the vignettes, or spatial montages, turn an already beguiling and uncanny Venice into something supernatural. Roeg cleverly uses distant views through Venice’s nervous system of alleyways to give only glimpses of the action, with the majority of the scenes blotted by walls and facades, creating murky, unknowable zones. Left with only fleeting visions, the audience, like the film’s main characters, are left to fill in the gaps, and are both unsure of what they have seen. Through the use of alleyways, the urban landscape in Don’t Look Now is part make-believe. Yet even in real-world scenarios, alleys have the same impact, prompting people to freely associate with the glimpses they collect through them, adding all the alleys of a city together to weave a whole story through it – thus constantly fermenting the city into new intoxicating concoctions and putting people in charge of their own spatial production. The resultant experiences may be a semi-fictional roman à clef, but as in literature, it’s a fiction more intense than reality, forming memories and attachments more indelible than Instagram holiday snaps.
For they simply can’t be photographed, only abstractly recollected. The best novels and films may seem complete depictions of alternate worlds, but really they are ruins and fragments that leave audiences to fill in the gaps. Alleyways have a ruin logic too, one which breaks cities and our conceptions of ourselves, only to rebuild them again. Their voids and gaps can only be filled with splinters of our personality, our private perceptions, so they can make us a unique part of a place, whether a local or tourist. It’s when homesick among the fragments, that can’t even make an attempt at a bad counterfeit of a stable place or dwelling, that we feel most at home. As the title of Jarmusch’s film suggests, in alleyways we can always be on permanent vacation, even if home is just around the corner.
Lead image: Steep walls bear down on the observer in Eduard Angeli’s dark and melancholy pencil and charcoal drawing Platz (2005). Courtesy of Eduard Angeli
This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today