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Bill Gall's Toronto laneway house, designed by Christine Lolley and Tom Knezic of Solares Architecture. City approval to built in a laneway - almost impossible to come by now - had already been granted when Mr. Gall bought the vacant lot six years ago.

Andrea Hunniford/Andrea Hunniford

I'll know spring has come to my west-side Toronto neighbourhood when some guys pull a spluttering car into the laneway out back, put some rock on the boom box, break out the beer and spend a Saturday afternoon messing with the engine.

Or when men who sleep at the local homeless shelter decide to spend the day sunning themselves in the lane, instead of huddling at the Coffee Time.

Or when the gardeners along the laneway start spading up the cold dirt in their little back yards and hanging out in the alley, swapping gossip and information about grapes and tomatoes.

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I love the daytime sociability of Toronto's lanes, as well as their midnight shadowy loneliness. They are preserves of the old, ungentrified city life that's been largely left behind in Toronto's famous rush to gussy up itself.

If you're among the many citizens who like our downtown residential laneways the derelict way they are, you can imagine my horror when I heard they'd been discovered. And not merely discovered, but mindfully studied and scouted out for new construction opportunities.

My mind was put somewhat at ease last week by a visit to Ballenford Books on Architecture, at 600 Markham St., where the illustrated report of this recent expedition into darkest Toronto is now available, and a celebratory show of photographs is on view through May 15.

The explorers, it turned out, were persons of the right sort to be prowling the back lanes. They were bright and inventive members of a graduate course in the University of Toronto's Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, and respectful students of ancient alley traditions and uses.

Under the guidance of architects Brigitte Shim and Donald Chong, and with general inspiration from Toronto urbanist and long-time laneway fan, George Baird, the participants in the course pondered the role of lanes in Toronto's urban fabric, then proposed architectural projects to slip into them.

Some of the projects portrayed in Site Unseen: Laneway Architecture & Urbanism in Toronto are sublime. My favourite is Jane Hutton's intense little laundromat, which collects its own rainwater for washing, heats its waiting area with the clothes dryers, and, on fine days, unfolds to allow laundry to be strung out on clotheslines.

The laneway laundromat serves a community need -- you can find coin-op washing facilities just down my street, if you think Toronto's gotten too up-market for such things -- and it conserves water and energy, while reinforcing historic uses of the laneway --"the tinkering of cars," Ms. Hutton writes, "the repair of garage doors and the hanging of laundry."

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Other hits are Abir Ali's suggestion for a neighbourhood funeral chapel and crypt, an intriguing idea that should be recalled as Toronto's downtown population intensifies and grows.

Both Chris Routley's course work and his neat, poignant photographs at Ballenford's call for appreciation of the rust, peeling paint and other signs of picturesque ruin that abound in the city's residential lanes.

As treatments of laneway reality, Mr. Routley's images are deeply romantic in tone, in stark contrast to the grittily realistic photos on view at Ballenford's by Arthur Goss, Toronto's great official photographer throughout the 1920s and the Depression.

Like Mr. Goss's harsh pictures of dilapidated laneway sheds and shabby streets, Charles Waldheim's thoughtful essay in Site Unsee n is a strong antidote to the kind of lazy nostalgia that enchanted students and urbanists can carelessly drift into.

As the U of T professor reminds us, the cheap, dilapidated laneway indeed tempts architects to undertake daring deeds -- to design imaginatively and boldly, and to launch public battles against city authorities reluctant to relax the rules that make imaginative laneway development difficult.

But in a worst-case scenario outlined by Mr. Waldheim, the architects win, current legal restrictions are overthrown -- but the clever architects are knocked aside by developers galloping into the laneways to make a bundle off all that freed-up land.

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Fortunately, the tight rules governing laneway construction are not likely to change fast, if at all. All my favourite lanes are safe, for the time being, from drastic change. But neither is the allure of lanes likely to slacken, nor the pressure on downtown Toronto to provide housing and facilities for millions of new people expected to arrive over the next three decades.

We are destined, in other words, to think about laneways for a long time to come. The students and their professional collaborators have completed an excellent, informative reconnoitre through the maze of Toronto laneways, and opened up fresh lines of thought about these much-loved elements of Toronto's urban landscape.

jmays@globeandmail.ca

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