With a little bit of artistic vision, elbow grease and $35,000, even the dreariest of alleyways can get the makeover of a lifetime.
Take a turn into the alleyway between Granville and Seymour behind the Orpheum theatre and what you find will be largely forgettable: dumpsters, commercial vehicles and the pungent smell of urine. “Uninspiring” is how the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) President and CEO Charles Gauthier describes Vancouver’s back alleys. “They’re undervalued and underutilized. We needed to do something with ," he says. Last September, the DVBIA teamed up with HCMA Architecture and Design to start a new project, More Awesome Now, that aims to revitalize Vancouver laneways. Together, they have already given a dreary alleyway south of West Hastings a makeover. Now called "Alley-Oop," the alley was pressure-washed, painted in vibrant pink, purple, and yellow, and equipped with a basketball hoop. (Get the pun now?) It's a sharp contrast to the surrounding business environment: “The laneways that HCMA designed are all kind of based on yin and yang," says Gauthier. Alley-Oop a playground, it’s the opposite of being in a work environment." And now the alley behind the historic Orpheum is getting a similar treatment. “This particular one is the extrovert of all the things that happen in the Commodore Ballroom and in the Orpheum Theatre," says Gauthier. "We’re basically taking the entertainment that’s happening inside those venues where you need a ticket to get in, and we’re putting it on the outside and making it accessible and free." To accomplish this, the DVBIA and HCMA recruited international artist Alex Beim of Tangible Interaction to guide the project. Recently, Beim has worked with the Blue Man Group, Arcade Fire, Coldplay, and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. “I think it’s fantastic—you can see as you stare into his eyes that he’s like a 10 year-old with a Lego set, pondering over what he’s going to create," says Gauthier. "His energy and enthusiasm is really contagious." Beim’s plans for Ackery’s Alley (named after Ivan Ackery, a Vancouver impresario who once managed the Orpheum) involves creating a light and sound laneway with a field of sensors that detect the presence of a person, producing sounds and changing colours as a response to movement. “Think of it as a large musical instrument,” says Gauthier. “We anticipate that a lot of people will go in there and they’ll experiment with moving their bodies in different ways to activate the light and sound.” The project, however, is going to need a bit of public support if it wants to get off the ground. It’s being funded via a Kickstarter campaign that’s ending July 12. At the time of publishing, the campaign has raised $17,982 of its $35,000 goal. The idea to revitalize alleyways came from DVBIA’s Re-Imagine Downtown Vancouver 2040 initiative, a collaborative public engagement project that asks a simple question: “How do you want downtown to look, taste and feel in 25 years?” Gauthier’s answer is straightforward: “If we want to be known as a place where urban design excels, we can’t leave our alleys that way. As the downtown becomes denser and we add more people, we need to create more places for people to interact with each other. That’s what cities are all about. It’s about these really unexpected encounters that you’ll have with strangers.”
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