Views from the Front Porch: July, 2020

My great-grandmother’s front porch in Kansas in about 1944. The two little girls are my aunts, both of whom are deceased. The little boy is my father who recently celebrated his 80th birthday.

There is a saying in architecture: Form follows function. It means that how a space is used will determine how it looks. There was a great deal of debate over that idea when it was first coined by architect Louis Sullivan in 1896. Specifically, designers wondered if ornamentation and decoration should be erased if function was all that drove form.

Our modern world, particularly in the United States, has taken that mantra to heart. We are masters of creating things that function, but we too often neglect the importance of form. If the purpose is to cover your skin, why worry about what your clothes look like? If your town needs three-bedroom houses, what difference does it make if they’re all the same? If we need a place to put cars, build a concrete bunker with ramps.

But what we miss when we adopt an unyielding form follows function approach to our world is that what we do matters, but so should how we do it.

The purpose of a front porch is clear: it’s a transition zone between the outside world and your private world. The function of porches is to provide a place for people to approach your home, stand, sit, talk, and otherwise interact with you in semi-privacy. Porches also function as a place for you to get outside and see your neighbors without having to leave the comfort of your own space. The porch is yours, but also a conduit to the rest of the world.

However, if function were all that mattered, we would never take the time and trouble to fix up our porches as we do. After all, any old chair or bench would work. Any delineated space outside the front door would be fine. But that’s not how we view our porches (or our balconies or patios). As a culture, we care about what our porches look like–about their form as well as their function.

Lots and lots of American houses have porches, even if it’s nothing more than a concrete square one step higher than the walk that precedes it. And they all serve the function of a porch–the transition zone between your world and the outside world. But let’s be honest–the appearance of a porch speaks volumes about the person who owns it. A porch filled with garbage tells us the person is probably a hoarder. A porch covered in empty beer cans screams, “college students.” Porches strewn with toys and strollers and no furniture convey, “exhausted parents of young children.” What do they need with porch furniture? They’d never have time to sit in it.

In all those variations, the porch itself–its function and purpose–doesn’t change. What changes is the form–not what is done, but how. And that form tells the world all sorts of things about us. The form speaks to our view of ourselves, our role in the community, and our care for the world. You don’t have to be wealthy or have a great sense of design to have a porch that communicates what you want it to. I’ve seen beautiful porches on mansions and on mobile homes. And those beautiful porches are equalizers, because they show that in both those places someone cares not only what is done, but how.

The how of porches and buildings and yes, life, is where the art meets the craft. We can build a highly functional life, but if we leave it bereft of the things that make it beautiful, what message are we sending to ourselves and those around us? We can own a home, and put food on the table, and pay all our bills–that is a functional life. But the form–the care and beauty–are where we show ourselves and the world around us what matters. So yes, function must come first, but decorate your porch. Make it sparkling and beautiful and full of meaning. Show the world who you are, and invite them to rejoice in it, because the how matters.

Love, Abby.

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