Paleo Retiree writes:
Kicking around the town of Carpinteria, CA for a few days recently left me marveling at an architectural wonder too often taken for granted: the American porch. Carpinteria (or, as everyone calls it, “Carp”) is an idyllic American small town, largely unspoiled, with a petite but genuine (and walkable/bikable) downtown, its own beach, amazing weather, and a fantastic location — an hour and a half up the coast from L.A. and 20 minutes down the coast from Santa Barbara. It’s both pokey and glorious: an ideal old-fashioned California beach town. Shhh — don’t let our secret out! I wouldn’t mind moving to Carp myself, and I’d definitely hate to see it become over-discovered.
A lot of the older houses in Carp feature porches. And what a lot these porches contribute to the beguiling impact of the town. Since we here at UR are about nothing if not appreciating the wonders of vernacular, informal, commercial and classical architecture and urbanism — or, in a more general way, about noticing and appreciating the wonders of what we already have but too often take for granted — I’m going to treat myself to some riffing on the virtues of old-fashioned American porches.
They reach out to the street in friendly welcome yet also serve to protect the private realm. They’re analogous to a person who’s both self-contained yet aware of and responsive to the world around him/her.
An aside: But, but, but … Isn’t comparing a house to a person a hick move? Au contraire. Where architecture-enjoyment and appreciation go, anthropormorphism is a good habit to cultivate. Don’t believe the profs and the critics: What’s most important isn’t style or fashion, it’s how buildings and neighborhoods treat us. And the easiest way to sense that is to ask yourself, “If this building/park/neighborhood were a person, how would I be taking the way he’s treating me?” In the case of these modest Carp houses-with-porches, my own conclusion would be that I’m being treated in a friendly and casual yet respectful way. How do they hit you?
Typically a step or two above ground level, porches create a transitional zone of formality and informality.
Porches intertwine with nature and community in multiple ways: light and shadow, air and atmosphere, plants and flowers, openness and protectedness. You see into them and then through them to the neighbors’ place. In other words, porches help tie neighborhoods together.
Note how the classical American porch faces the street directly. No fancy modernist games with geometry; no torquing of axes for chic effect. Don’t you hate it when people you’re greeting or talking to look over your shoulder or away to the side? American houses with porches meet you, and engage with you, square on.
Even the most modest porch gives the house’s inhabitants a chance to interact with the world going by it, and integrates it with other residences on the block.
Park a car on the street and the effect of the porch isn’t diminished. The house itself, the life inside and outside of it, are still primary.
Approaching this house you’d move from the sidewalk, through a small gate in an iron fence, along a path and across a yard, up a few stairs and through the porch … You’d experience an abundance of transitions. In architecture terms, this is the equivalent in music of modulations — the ways that composers change a composition’s key. You don’t just go Bam! from one to the next. (Though modernists often do, both in music and in architecture.) That’d be abrupt and even rude. Instead, you work your way from one to the other in a most agreeable and inventive way.
The position and posture of the porch gives the house a hint of authority over the street; the openness of the porch merges it with the community. A porch makes its own contribution to a smalltown version of Jane Jacobs’ great concept of “eyes on the street.”
Morning coffee, anyone?
It’s almost hard to tell where one property ends and the next one begins.
In case this barrage of houses-with-porches has us forgetting what our modest houses have become like in recent decades (most people date the decline of the American porch to the 1940s, when automobile suburbs started to explode), here’s a quick reminder:
What’s facing the street and the nice sidewalk here is one side of a garage and the butt end of a van. Your primary interaction with this house, in other words, is going to be via its vehicles.
The house as appendage to its garage. Cars as a barrier between the house’s inhabitants and anyone who passes by. (Nice sidewalk, but no one to wave to or chat with.) A renunciation of neighborliness.
Instead of the private extending itself to meet and interact with the public, here we have a front door recessed into shadows — indicative of the family withdrawing from public participation. In order to interact with anything, the garage door will need to be opened, and the station wagon will need to back out.
Why do we design in ways that actively promote the decline of community, the elevation of the car, and the atomization of life generally? Why are we deliberately walling ourselves off from so much of what’s lovely about life? Bring back the porch, sez I. They’re beautiful symbols of civility; and they’re effective promoters of both pleasure and civil society.
- The “radical-reactionary” group blog Front Porch Republic chose its name carefully. One of the site’s masterminds is the great Bill Kauffman, an eloquent partisan and defender of smalltown virtues. Read our interview with Bill about his recent movie “Copperhead.” You can watch “Copperhead” on Amazon Instant.
- Blowhard, Esq. celebrates some beautiful, modest houses in the town of Tustin, CA. Nearly all of them feature gorgeous porches.
- I riffed through some other simple but important architectural dimensions and qualities in this appreciation of the California town of Nevada City.
- Back at my old blog I wrote an intro to Jane Jacobs.
- An amusing Wikipedia entry about “porch sitting.”
- NPR considers the porch.
- A good quick history of the American porch.
- It’s a sign of what’s wrong with the general discussion about architecture that there seems to be only one non-lifestyley book available on the topic: Michael Dolan’s “The American Porch.” In a sane world, architecture publications would be less obsessed with chic theory and highflown style-chat and more full of discussions about topics like porches.
- Here’s an interview with Dolan, who shares a couple of hyper-interesting facts: the porch as we know it in America actually comes from Africa; and the decline of the American porch started well before 1940.
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