The Front Porch and the Garden

April 21, 2010


[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays. It is also a response to our Front Porch series of articles, published in February.]

by Bill Randall

The front porch that used to stand on the lot where the author will build his new, more sustainable, home.

As an architect, I have always been fascinated by the design of place. To be able to be a part of creating a built environment that is beautiful and useful has always held an appeal that is hard to describe. I first wanted to be an architect when I was in fifth grade, and that “desire of my heart” stuck throughout my teen and young adult years.

In particular, I have always been intrigued by the place of home. Where we live and eat and raise our kids has held a special place in my passions. Even in my junior high years, I would design houses for classmates for 25¢ or 50¢ on taped-together pieces of typing paper.

Homes are where we live and interact with those we love and care deeply about.  Even Jesus is “going to prepare a place” for us so that where he is, we may be also. This is a huge part of who we are as humans and what we need physically, emotionally and spiritually. And bay window seats, inviting kitchens, cozy fireplaces, and columned porches all contribute to that sense of place where we can interact with friends and family.

The Cultural History of the Front Porch
Culturally, porches have been around since ancient times. In Greek and Roman architecture, porches were common. Also called porticos, loggia, or verandas, these covered, open structures attached to buildings were everywhere.

In the history of the United States, porches accompanied the melting pot of cultures coming into this country from Europe and Africa. They were common throughout our early history until right around World War II.

Connection to Nature
Porches help connect us to nature. The aspect of sitting out and enjoying creation is refreshing. I think this can be traced back to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve walked in the “cool of the day” with God. We have within us that God-given connection to nature, that desire to be part of the Garden.

Even in the US, this connection to nature was so strong that we established the world’s first national park in 1872. There is an innate sense in our being that we are somehow connected to nature and the outdoors. The fresh air. The activity. It’s live, not YouTube.

Connection to Neighbor
Porches also are a wonderful way to interact with our neighbors. To sit on the front porch in a chair or a swing, sipping iced tea or lemonade in our present “cool of the day” still holds an amazing appeal to us. To be able to greet our neighbors and have a short chat fosters that very spiritual concept called community.

While our connection to nature could be part of the first great commandment of loving God, our connection to those in our immediate community could be part of that second commandment to love our neighbor. Do we really love our neighbor? Do we even KNOW our neighbor? We’ve fallen out of touch with those around us as the “place” of our front porch has waned and one of our primary means of connecting with our neighbors has faded.

The Demise of the Front Porch
Three inventions in the mid 20th century had an almost fatal effect on the front porch and our connection to our neighbors: the automobile, the air conditioner, and the television.

Before these conveniences, summertime meant sitting outside in the evenings to escape the heat inside our homes. Little insulation, no air conditioning, and no TV made this a viable, even necessary, alternative. And we didn’t have large back yards with large decks, barbecues, and spas. So we’d sit on our front porches and watch our neighbors and friends walk by. We walked more then since we maybe had one car per family and not too many places to drive to.

With the growing availability of the automobile, we became much more mobile. We could go places, and we did. We weren’t home as much. Most people could afford a car, some two. We spent less time in our neighborhoods, on our porches. At first, garages were detached buildings at the back of our property. Then, they were attached so we could go directly inside our homes. Then the garage to “house” our cars became a dominant architectural feature. And when electric openers gained popularity, we could drive home, press a remote-control button, open our garage door, drive inside and never have contact with any of our neighbors.

With the advent of the air conditioner, we didn’t have to go outside to escape the heat of our homes. We could stay inside in a thermally-constant, comfortable environment. And we had something to occupy our time while inside: television. Television exploded in the late 1940s. In 1948, there were 350,000 TVs in the US. By August 1949, there were 2 million. October 1950, 8 million, and, by 1953, half of all US homes (25 million) had TVs.

Houses didn’t need front porches anymore, so there was a trend toward the ranch house and a simple box with maybe a small roof over the front door… or maybe not.

Spiritual Longing and the New Urbanism
I was born in 1956, after World War II, so I don’t remember growing up in a house with a front porch. I designed our first two houses, and both had front porches, but they were really just token porches; they weren’t “real.” They were just for show or as that transition space between outside and inside. During the period of the late 1980s and early 1990s we started putting porches back on the front of our houses, but I’m not sure we really knew why.

I’m thinking now that we did it because we were longing for what we no longer had in our connection to the outdoors or our neighbors. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we remembered a time when we had those connections, and it was a time of the front porch. Our connection to God (vertical, through nature and the outdoors) and our connection to our neighbors (horizontal, through a chair and some lemonade) is, I believe, fundamental to the way we are created.

There is a trend in planning, “New Urbanism,” that is what I’d call a sort of return to our roots. It is a principle encompassing walkability, connectivity, and a mix of uses and quality of architecture within a more traditional neighborhood structure. And while this trend can be applied to the larger community context, it can start in our own homes—on our own front porches. It captures some of that desire to regain some of what we lost with the automobile, the air conditioner, and the television. That desire for the simpler, more basic lifestyle where we can breathe a little easier and be a little calmer. It’s a Sabbath of sorts, where we don’t feel compelled to produce, and we can just be.

Bill Randall is an architect and founding principal at Arbor South Architecture in Eugene, Oregon. Also a LEED AP and currently studying for his certification as a Sustainable Building Advisor (cSBA), he started a side business of small, sustainable house plans called thesimpleHOUSE in 2008. He and his wife, Brenda, are empty-nesters feeling the “tug” to downsize. The house that Bill is designing for them will have a street-facing, neighbor-friendly, usable, inviting front porch.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Michael Abbaté May 1, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Bill –
Your description of the allure of the porch really resonates with me. Growing up in So Cal, I never had a porch, but my grandparents had an awesome patio from which we observed the raccoons, jays and other urban wildlife. Our first home, a 1912 Portland bungalow, featured a wonderful traditional porch, where we could watch the world go by, interact with neighbors and walkers alike. The cover came in especially handy on those 300 days a year when water fell from the sky. Our new house has a wraparound porch that that provides vantage points to watch either the creek, the garden or the neighborhood. A porch provides the safety and security we all desire, while giving us a place of prospect where we can watch the world the Creator placed us in. Thanks for reminding us!

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