As an architect, the design of place has always held an incredible fascination to me. 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.
The place of homes has also always intrigued me. The places we live and eat and raise our kids have 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 an incredible place where we live and interact with those we love and care deeply about. Even Jesus is “going to prepare a place” for us 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.
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.
And, in the history of the United States, porches were brought here with the melting pot of cultures coming into this country from Europe and Africa and were also common throughout our early history until right around World War II.
CONNECTION TO NATURE
Porches are a splendid connection we have to nature. It’s about how we feel when we’re outside. The refreshing aspect of sitting out enjoying Creation. I think this can be traced back to the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve walking 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 NEIGHBORS
Porches also are a wonderful way to interact with our neighbors. To sit on the front porch in a chair or a swing, sipping ice 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 a 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.
DEMISE OF THE FRONT PORCH
Three events 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.
In the summer time, we would often sit outside in the evenings to escape the heat inside our homes. Little insulation, no air conditioning, 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 as a society. 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 neighborhood, 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 even more 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 also didn’t have 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 literally 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.
LONGINGS 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. It happened during the period of the late 1980s and early 1990s when we started putting porches back on the front of our houses, but I’m not sure we really knew why.
I’m thinking now it was a longing for what we no longer had in our connection to the outdoors and our connection to 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 that is what I’d call a sort of return to our roots. It’s that desire to regain some of what we lost with the automobile, the air conditioner and the television. It is a 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, we can just be.