A Story of Two Houses

Below is an image and an excerpt from the book The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment. I'm in the middle of the book and it would be a fantastic read for anyone, whether you hold to any particular system of beliefs or not. This book is a follow-up to the author's previous book, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, a book that planted the seed a decade ago that has grown in to my passion for healthy communities. 10015089_10100156685423275_2128748937168031928_n

The pictures [above] show two common types of houses for a middle-class American family. The one on the left is a typical house in a pre-WWII neighborhood. And the one on the right is a typical house in an exurban subdivision...

We can note a couple of differences between these housing types. The first has to do with the larger context. Within the pedestrian shed (a quarter- to half-mile radius) for the house on the left, we can expect to find a coffee shop or a grocery store within three blocks, and perhaps an apartment building on the same block. Within that same radius for the house on the right, there will only be other detached single-family homes of roughly the same scale.

The house on the left is set in a simple grid of blocks. This grid allows one to choose multiple routes to get from one point to another. This means that the house on the left can expect people to walk or drive by on their way to other destinations. The road system that connects the house on the right to other destinations is a cul-de-sac/feeder road system. This system directs automobile traffic to major roads and prevents automobile and foot traffic from passing in front of this house on the way to somewhere else. The house on the right is characterized by less connectivity than the house on the left. In general, we can say that the house on the left is scaled to be accessed by pedestrians, and the one on the right is scaled for the automobile.

...We can look at the differing ways these two houses connect interior space to the outside world and how they shape outdoor space. Both houses perform the primary function of defining interior space and sheltering the private needs of the families who live in them. But they are quite different in how they connect the interior space to the outside world. The primary threshold that allows passage from inside to outside for the house on the left is the front door. It is architecturally prominent and centrally located. For the house on the right, the primary threshold is the garage door. This door covers almost the entire front face of the house. The garage door is a distinct kind of threshold, because it allows passage from outside to inside but only for residents of the house.

The house on the left also has a liminal threshold in the front porch. This type of threshold encourages interaction between those on the outside and those on the inside of the house. For this house, the family invites interaction with neighbors as they sit on the porch in the evening. When we consider the grid layout of streets that allow pass-through traffic, we can see that the front porch also allows interactions with strangers.

For the house on the right, the front porch is gone, because there is no longer a need to sit outside to escape the heat of the house in the summer. Central air conditioning has made staying in the house more comfortable. And there is no need to relieve boredom by sitting outside and visiting with the passing parade. The television inside in the living room provides an even more colorful assortment of characters for their entertainment.

From the perspective of traditional residential architecture, it looks as if the house on the right is turned backward. The house isn’t oriented for interaction with the public realm in front of it, but rather is oriented more to the back. We can’t see it, but we can imagine that the house on the right has a spacious and well-appointed back deck and yard. In the backyard, the family can enjoy time together without being interrupted or watched by people passing by.

Next, we can consider how the two houses shape the public realm. We’ve already noted that the house on the left sits on a simple grid. So we can say that the street in front of the house forms a kind of outdoor hallway. This house sits on its lot so that the face is parallel to the street, which at least ties the house into the space in front. But it is too low and too far from the house on the other side of the street to really form any kind of streetwall, so the house itself doesn’t create a strong sense of enclosure. However, the low fence in front helps provide a nice definition for the outdoor hallway.

The street in front of the house on the right is not straight but has a gentle curve. The house is sited on its property at an angle that doesn’t line up with the neighbor’s house. The landscaping does not relate to either the street or the neighboring houses. This combination of features doesn’t form any kind of town fabric.

If you are an American citizen in the twenty-first century, it is likely that you wouldn’t give the house on the right much thought if you were to visit a friend who lived there. Perhaps it looks much like the house that you grew up in or even the house you live in now. I think that it is fair to say that the house on the right represents a standard type of housing for the American middle class.

However, when we think about the form of houses as containers for family life in light of other questions about the scope and purpose of the family, we can begin to see some connections between these questions.

The house on the right is not scaled for the convenience of pedestrians. This not only affects how we experience this neighborhood, it also means that it is designed to function only when the head of the household is of driving age. Fortunately, this is a pretty wide net and includes a lot of households. But the population that is not included in this are those elderly who are too old to operate an automobile.

What is not shown in the house on the right are the retirement homes that had to be developed to provide a place for people to live after they became too old to drive and couldn’t live in that kind of setting any more. We may not have noticed this, because, as we have noted, we tend to think of the traditional family as being a relatively short-term arrangement between parents and their minor children.

After the children grow up, we still consider these people to be family, but there is little expectation that we will be regularly involved in each other’s lives after this phase is over. This short-term approach probably affects how we view not only the role of our own elderly parents but the elderly in our communities as well. It probably doesn’t seem strange to live where there are very few elderly people.

The house on the left is set in a neighborhood where the elderly can still live. It may have an apartment building on the block that contains some elderly people who can no longer drive but can access their basic services on foot.

Another connection that can be made is between the form of the house and expectations concerning public interaction. The house on the right is oriented toward the interior and the backyard of the property. This is not accidental but reflects the fact that the family living in the house on the right probably sees the purpose of their family as primarily private. The fact that the house does not encourage or even really allow much interaction with the public outside of the house is not important, because that is not necessary for the family to fulfill its purpose. Now, to be fair, it is probably the case that the family living in the house on the left doesn’t consider public interaction to be of primary importance. But whether they see it as integral to their family or not, their house is set up to allow and even encourage some interaction with the wider public.

It is important to note that this distinction applies to the adults and the children in these homes. The automobile orientation of the house on the right means that the adults will likely move between work and home without interacting with their neighbors. And it means that the settings in which they may have informal interactions (grocery store, coffee shop, church) may be scattered across a pretty wide territory. The children in this home will be socialized within the private realm of their friends’ homes or at a shopping mall. And most of their interactions with people outside of their home will be mediated by the adults who have to make arrangements and drive them to various destinations.

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