Architecture

Front Porch Culture

I am fortunate enough to be spending some time at our cottage on Martha’s Vineyard this summer. And one thing that keeps coming back to me is the role of the front porch, and how that impacts the way we interact with each other.

Bowen Cottage

Bowen Cottage

Our cottage is in a very pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. And while our street is very quiet, people walk or bike by on their way to the beach or to a friend’s house. Choosing to sit on the porch is a passive invitation to interaction. In an age where we spend our time communicating through texts, chats and IMs, it is refreshing to have these spontaneous encounters face-to-face.

Two renovations of seaside homes by Ramsay Gourd Architects.

Two renovations of seaside homes by Ramsay Gourd Architects.

Note the wide, welcoming stairs.

Note the wide, welcoming stairs.

In thinking about this phenomenon, it occurred to me that rarely do people invest in a front porch in a vehicular neighborhood. The suburban street-scape in the age of the automobile has a very different feel from the turn-of-the century fabric where I find myself today.

I remember, as a young man, being highly offended when I saw the remodeling of an old Shingle Style house here. While the new owners preserved the sweeping porch of my friend’s childhood home, they eliminated the wide stair that beckoned passers-by to join them in enjoying the company of others. I found the omission of the stair to be a clear sign that these new owners were more interested in privacy than community.

This is a porch that beckons passers-by to come, rest, and share the gorgeous ocean view.

This is a porch that beckons passers-by to come, rest, and share the gorgeous ocean view.

It is amazing how a couple of simple architectural gestures can impact the way we relate with each other. Whether part of the simple Campground cottages like mine, or the grand Shingle Style homes along East Chop Drive, each of these porches acts as a warm smile that draws you in, and says “Welcome”.

An inviting screened porch that flows from the front porch of a recent renovation by Ramsay Gourd Architects.

An inviting screened porch that flows from the front porch of a recent renovation by Ramsay Gourd Architects.

Stepping Outside

Wisteria Arbour at Beaver Brook - Hollis, NH

Wisteria Arbour at Beaver Brook - Hollis, NH

After enduring what felt like and endless winter in New England, it is refreshing to see the greens of summer and feel the warm kiss of the sun. This turn to balmier days has my mind moving outside. I find that the best outdoor spaces provide a special, sometimes tenuous connection between man and nature. It is in these spaces that we start to re-connect with the awe-inspiring world in which we live.

 

The Villa Lante

The Villa Lante

As an architect, often working in bucolic rural settings, I am very conscious of how my buildings relate to the landscape and how, through framed views and circulation patterns, I connect the inhabitants with the outdoors, drawing them both literally and metaphorically out from the shelter of our built environments. The Italian architects of the Renaissance can be credited for some of the finest examples of integrating architecture with the landscape. Consider the amazing palazzi that extend out into the countryside with gardens and vineyards that knit structure and order with the organic fabric of the untamed landscape.

 

 

The notion of the Outdoor Room has been exploited by the likes of Home Depot and Webber. When we hear the term, we often conjure up images of built-in grilles, trellised ceilings, and furnished spaces, even with indoor/outdoor rugs. But outdoor spaces can be as loosely defined as a clearing in the woods or pattern in the ground plane.

 

An inviting path of natural elements

An inviting path of natural elements

We must be careful in our enthusiasm to celebrate outdoor spaces that we don’t lose the essence of what makes them so special. I like to use natural materials in outdoor settings. And when appropriate, indigenous materials that speak of the place where they are. There are countless “weatherproof “ products that to my eye clash with the landscape rather than integrate with it. I’ll take a courtyard of pea-stone over a terrace of stamped concrete any day!

 

 

 

A living fence made of rooted willow cuttings

A living fence made of rooted willow cuttings

Natural stone steps knitted into the landscape

Natural stone steps knitted into the landscape

The New Orleans Shotgun

A Traditional New Orleans Shotgun House

A Traditional New Orleans Shotgun House

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I was captivated by the architecture. Of particular interest was the small vernacular building type commonly known as the “Shotgun House”. These ubiquitous structures are found in just about every region of the city in both single and double configuration, and are articulated in myriad styles.

The common belief is that the term “Shotgun” refers to the interior arrangement of spaces, through which one could shoot directly through the length of the house without hitting a wall, due to the arrangement of doors in an “enfilade” configuration. However, historic evidence suggests that the term is a corruption of the West African word, “Shogon”, which translates to “God’s House”.

A Camel Back Shotgun House, so called for the two-story addition at the rear

A Camel Back Shotgun House, so called for the two-story addition at the rear

Enslaved Africans in Haiti used the architectural form common to their homeland and employing local materials built narrow buildings with gabled entrances, stucco walls, thatched roofs, and shuttered windows that provided them the only privacy they were allowed. When the Africans of Haiti revolted in 1791, plantation owners fled to New Orleans, bringing with them slaves still under their control.

 

 

 

A traditional Double Shotgun House

A traditional Double Shotgun House

 

Along with this influx, many free people of color also migrated to New Orleans. These freemen continued to build shotgun houses, replacing their African motifs with gingerbread trimmings. Porches on the gabled front of these homes both distinguished them from the French structures, whose outdoor space was contained in courtyards, and provided a social interconnectivity among these newly arrived residents.

An Elegant Greek Revival Shotgun

An Elegant Greek Revival Shotgun

Today, we see the “Shotgun House” in many guises. Transformed over time, one can find Victorian, Greek Revival, and even Spanish-influenced motifs. Many of the deep overhanging porches, succumbing to gravity, have been supported by columns of various style.

Make it Right Houses of the 9th Ward

Make it Right Houses of the 9th Ward

Following the horrific event of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, remarkable efforts have been made to restore the district worst hit, known as the 9th Ward. Through huge efforts spearheaded by Brad Pitt, and the organization, Make it Right, new eco-friendly structures that are modern interpretations of this historic building type are being erected. A visit to this devastated area is both sobering and humbling.

In a city rich in architectural tradition, it is amazing how I was captivated by these simple indigenous homes. They are truly of the place, and are the character-contributing buildings that help to define New Orleans’ architectural personality.

Double Shotgun House with a High Victorian Porch

Double Shotgun House with a High Victorian Porch

 

 

 

Barn to be Wild

A Powerful Barn Image by Photographer and Friend, Lisa Cuman

A Powerful Barn Image by Photographer and Friend, Lisa Cuman

It seems I cannot escape from barns! Granted, I live in Vermont. However, there seems to be a resurgence in the romance of the barn. Old barns, new barns, “wedding barns”, working barns. There is a trending fascination with this agrarian building type. But let’s face it. Barns really are pretty cool.

barn 22.jpg

My earliest barn memory is of the time when my next-oldest brother and I built enormous forts out of hay bales with the Shelley girls in the loft of the barn by their house. The experience had a magical impact. (Although that might have something to do with the “Spinning of the Bottle”!) Slivers of light shown through the cracks in the walls, forming razor-thin sheets as they illuminated the hay-dust suspended in the air. I can still see it today.

Stone Barn

Stone Barn

I designed my first recreational barn some ten years ago. It is a handsome structure, inspired by the ruins of a stone silo I came across not far from where I live. The owner wanted a retreat from his spectacular, if not precious home, where he could put his feet up, have a cigar and relax, while watching a game or playing pool. It is an elegant reaction to the concept of the “man cave”.

Horse Barn Cottage

Horse Barn Cottage

 

 

 

I recently designed a guest suite conversion of the hayloft in a modern horse barn. The final scheme was a study in contrasts. My client and I sourced and repurposed materials from a barn on her family’s soy bean farm, bringing both patina and provenance to lend warmth to the clean, modern design. HGTV recently sent a crew up to film this project for their show , “You Live in What?”

Mountain Top Inn Barn

Mountain Top Inn Barn

 

I am currently working on my second “wedding barn”. Apparently, city-dwellers are fascinated by the romantic idea of being betrothed near a manger. While the space and light are suggestive of a rural cathedral, the reality of donning one’s finest frocks amid the silage and manure of a working farm dose not jibe with the notion of a symbolically virginal espousal. Not to mention that the bacchanal banquets associated with these events require stealthily operating staff and support space.

 

Also on the boards these days, is a hybrid remodel of a fabulous horse barn. The program combines an apartment for a family of four, and offices for a farm manager, as well as stalls and associated areas for up to four horses. And while the family is delighted to live in “the Hayloft”, there is a need to bring some of the comfort, scale, and refinement of home to the project.

 

 

Having spent the better times of my childhood in the company of horses, I think I will always love a good barn.

The Wooden Tent

Bowen Cottage

Bowen Cottage

This past weekend, my wife and I went out to Martha’s Vineyard and took on the bitter-sweet task of putting our little family cottage to bed for the winter. You see, with no heat or insulation, this truly is a seasonal home. We gathered up all items that were in danger of freezing (leaving the vodka, but taking the tonic), brought in all of the outdoor furniture from the porch, and made certain that all of the windows and doors were securely closed. Any time I spend working on our little place, I find myself contemplating the history of these tiny cottages that are ubiquitous to the town of Oak Bluffs.

   Society Tent of the Warren, Rhode Island Methodist Church - 1873

 

Society Tent of the Warren, Rhode Island Methodist Church - 1873

Known today simply as the Campgrounds, the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting community was born from Christian origins. In 1835, the first Methodist revival was held in a small patch of land, dotted with oak trees. These religious retreats grew enormously over the years. Whole congregations would come and set up “society tents”. These ephemeral canvas structures housed both men and women in a dormitory setting, with a canvas dividing “Wall” separating the sexes.

 

Soon families started leasing small parcels of land where they could pitch their own tents. In an effort to make themselves more comfortable, they would build tent platforms, offering wood floors to their temporary abodes. In the 1860s and 1870s these family tents were rapidly replaced with permanent, seasonal wooden cottages. Each cottage was based in size on the prescribed dimensions of the tent platform, making tiny structures that offered little in the way of luxury. At one point, there were approximately 500 of these Lilliputian dwellings. Today there are just over 300 in the original setting.

Cottages on Clinton Avenue. - c. 1875

Cottages on Clinton Avenue. - c. 1875

Ours is one of the re-located structures. Moved from the Campgrounds to the area known as East Chop sometime in the early 1900’s, our little “Wooden Tent” has been both added onto and reduced in size. There is something charming and liberating about the simplicity of our cottage. Come Spring, we will ceremoniously re-open the cottage. I always anticipate that day with the excitement of a child waiting to open his Christmas gifts! So until then, I will spend my time planning projects and looking forward to a summer of simple pleasures and good friends.

Bowen Cottage

Bowen Cottage

Inside Bowen Cottage

Inside Bowen Cottage