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Why constraints can be a good thing for design


I was reading the New York Times this morning and I stumbled upon an interesting article about Shubert Alley. I wasn’t aware of Shubert Alley, but I’m sure many of you probably are. It’s a 300-foot long pedestrian-only alley in the theater district of New York. It connects 44th Street and 45th Street and runs west of Broadway.

And apparently it’s a big deal in the theater world – or at least according to Richard Hornby in 1991: “In New York, the desirability of a theatre is inversely proportional to its distance from Shubert Alley.”

But what you may not be aware of is how the alley–which today serves as a public gathering space–was actually created. In 1913 when the Shubert and Booth theaters were built, the fire code dictated that theaters had to have separate fire exits on the sides of their buildings that connected directly to a main street. 

Most of the time this led to blank sidewalls, but in this instance, the Shuberts and their architect Henry Beaumont Herts, decided to run an alley all the way through the block to serve as their emergency exit. 

But what seemingly started as a pragmatic response to a code requirement, ended up creating what some people would consider the heart of the theater district. Sometimes constraints can be a good thing for design.

Image: New York Times

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