Selling an Illusion
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BUILD calls B.S. on the front porch lifestyle and the developers who sell it.
Earlier this summer, we rode from Seattle to Vancouver on our annual S2V benefit ride. It’s a particularly fascinating ride for architects and the design-minded because it offers a direct experience of the built environment for 188 miles. The ride navigates through hundreds of neighborhoods and communities over a two-day period and you literally see, hear, smell, and feel everything from Seattle to Vancouver.
Up near the Canadian border, our route traveled through what appeared to be a perfectly normal neighborhood; that is, unless you had your design radar on. It was a newer neighborhood of faux-craftsman style homes, with their chunky columns and clumsy A-frame dormers marching down a white-picket-fence lined street. And while we could poke fun at the “architecture” all day long, these homes did one thing quite well: the front porches looked generous and comfortable. The deep shadows provided refuge from the noon day sun, there was plenty of room for chairs, and the raised floor level allowed nice sightlines to overlook the surrounding community. Overall, the porches of these homes looked pleasant and inviting (and not just because our arses were tired from being in the saddle for two days).
However, despite the well composed porches, something was terribly wrong with this picture. It was an 80 degree Saturday afternoon in the Pacific Northwest (we don’t get many of those), and there was nothing but blue sky with chirping birds. It was the perfect afternoon. But out of hundreds of these homes, not a single person was enjoying their front porch. Nobody. Strange, right? As soon as you noticed all the vacant porches, you couldn’t stop noticing. And as architects who think about this kind of stuff all day, it’s hard not to draw conclusions. So here are ours:
The developers of these homes and neighborhoods are selling an illusion of a nostalgic America: one in which you return home from a day’s work, hang your fedora on the dark stained oak hat rack next to the front door, grab a glass of lemonade and sit with your family on the front porch and watch the sun go down. In short, these developers are selling Mayberry. And, as evidenced by our ride, this lifestyle no longer exists (if it ever did in the first place).
In our fantasy lives, many of us are enjoying that porch with family, friends and cold beverages. But in our real lives, most of us are too busy to straighten the chairs on the porch, let alone hang out and watch the afternoon go by. We’re too busy for the front porch lifestyle. Plus, who would you sit there with? Your spouse will be stuck in traffic until 6:45, and your kids are occupied with science club, soccer practice and video games. Catching up with friends is done through Facebook and your neighbor is an architect, or was it an accountant — whatever the case, it requires them to work every evening. And come to think of it, shouldn’t you be picking up the kids from soccer?
The front porch is just one convenient example of the discord between the lives we think we want to live and the actual lives we’re living. For better or for worse, architecture is uniquely positioned to take full advantage of that fantasy and exploit it.
Now, we’re not condemning front porches; we don’t have any issue with porches that serve a purpose. Nor are we criticizing life in the 21st Century; we’re happy to be active, engaged and digital. Our concern, rather, is the ridiculous gap between residential design based on people’s fantasy lives and how people actually live. Failing to recognize this gap is foolish and there is an army of schlock developers making a fortune off of people’s inability to reconcile the two opposing worlds.
As architects we spend a great deal of time (probably too much time) thinking about how the built-environment could look if we were simply designing for reality, if we just focused our design ability around life as it actually occurs. Designing for a fantasy world dumbs-down the environment around us and holds back progress. Fabricating communities around fantasies allows people to continue fooling themselves. They buy wicker chairs and ottomans that never get used, because with that new house and that new life, they’re finally going to relax on that front porch and enjoy lazy Saturday afternoons with friends and family. And with any luck, Don Knotts will stop by for some lemonade.
Keep both feet on the ground and cheers from team BUILD