'20ft Wide' revives Austin alley with art, architecture

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A crowd of people visit the unveiling of the 20ft WIDE exhibition, a transformation of alley #111 on Ninth Street between Congress Avenue and Brazos Street into a vibrant public space, Wednesday evening.

Photo Credit: Debby Garcia | Daily Texan Staff

For five days, an alley in downtown Austin will experience a transformation into a colorful, yet temporary, work of art and architecture. 

An alley on Ninth Street between Congress Avenue and Brazos Street will be the subject of the project 20ft WIDE. From yoga to live music, 20ft WIDE will feature a variety of public events within the transformed alley. Working with Art Alliance Austin, architects Dan Cheetham, Michelle Tarsney and several other designers helped create and install 20ft WIDE – which is named after the standard width of Austin alleys.

“I love alleys because they really give a unique window into the history of cities,” said Cheetham, an alumnus of UT’s School of Architecture. “They have this inherent functional beauty in history that I think is really interesting.”

Cheetham said one of the goals of the project is to draw attention to the functional but beautiful elements of the alley, such as mechanical pipes, conduits and fire escapes. According to Cheetham, the alley will display colored twine strung between walls, hundreds of origami cranes made by local children, murals and even a soundtrack. 

“[The goal is] to really reframe the alley and give it a personality, albeit temporarily,” Cheetham said. 

Cheetham said he hopes 20ft WIDE will inspire others, including students, to start temporary pop-up art in their own cities. 

“It’s an essay on a kind of can-do attitude,” Cheetham said. 

Tarsney, who helped Cheetham install the string sculptures, said working on the project was a wonderful experience and a learning process. 

“Every project has different challenges and different materials and different groups you’re working with,” Tarsney said.

Tarsney said she hopes this project activates the alley in a way people can imagine the potential of the space. For her, alleys are a conglomeration of history that give rhythm to the structure of the city, Tarsney said. 

In addition to alleys’ function of storage and vehicular deliveries, Tarsney said she hopes the project inspires people to envision new roles for the alley and to gain a new awareness of the urban environment. 

Meredith Powell, executive director for Art Alliance Austin, said the project will present a report to the City of Austin Downtown Commission for the potential uses of alleys. Powell said as Austin increases in public density, the urban alley system will become more critical.

“We all play a role in the development of the city,” Powell said. “From the Art Alliance Austin perspective, it’s about participation and engagement.”

20ft WIDE lasts from Wednesday to Sunday. Events in the alley will include an opening party, idea presentations, a commuter breakfast, family activities and a day of exploring the alley.

This article was corrected after its original posting. The last quote in the story is said by Powell.