Last updated: May 5, 2012 12:06 am

Between two worlds

A porch acts not only as an interface between home and town but between an individual and the world

The word veranda is one of those wonderful words, such as bungalow, that come to us from India. It derives from the Sanskrit varanda, meaning “to cover”. But, unusually, it comes to us from two different directions. Baranda, in Spanish, is a handrail. Portuguese for veranda, meanwhile, is varanda (the Portuguese have been in India since Vasco de Gama landed in Kappakadavu in 1498), which takes us back to the beginning.

The veranda is, for the British at least, a word that conjures up lazy afternoons out of the searing sun: a gently swaying rocking chair or perhaps a hammock, and a hat pulled low over the eyes. Verandas are also the symbol of colonial life in hot countries. Climate suggests their purpose. These are interstitial spaces between the public and the private realms, places that allow dwellers to be simultaneously at home, under the cover of their own roofs (as the Sanskrit word suggests) and yet still outdoors, enjoying the breeze.

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From the simplest porch – a little sloping roof above a door – to the most elaborate portico defined by classical columns and a pediment, all these architectural features share the same purpose: to create a zone of ritual preparation for entry and a carefully designated semi-private space.

The word “porch” derives from “portico”, which was a colonnaded space that stood before a temple. The most basic porch retains something of that nature, the preparation for and celebration of entry into the private realm. If a veranda might have a rocking chair, a porch might have a trunk or chest, just enough for someone to sit on – perhaps while changing their shoes. It is the remnant of a gesture of hospitality, a seat for an unexpected guest.

If the porch is covered, it might also house the coats and boots, umbrellas and dog leads that speak of a transition in dress and demeanour from the inside to the outside. The floor material will be different, perhaps with a doormat so that the more delicate surface of the interior is interrupted in preparation for the earth outside. The porch light hanging above is a symbol of presence, its burning stands for a version of homeliness, the everyday riposte to a flag flying when the Queen is at home.

If the porch is extended across the front of the house it becomes a veranda. Almost every country and every culture maintains a version of this arcaded space. From the Appalachians to the Alps, Moravia to Malaysia, the veranda exists as a raised deck running the length of the house, quite often the space where a family, particularly the older members, will spend more of their waking hours than any other. Even the rooms in Japanese houses, so different in conception, form and material to the more solid and stolid European archetypes, feature a strip of covered wooden decking.

In some local traditions porches are so popular that they take over the whole façade. Think of the house in Gone With the Wind or the curving rear portico of the White House, where the porch becomes a balcony for the bedroom floors. On occasion the porch even becomes the bedroom. On unbearably hot nights it might be used as a “sleeping porch” (my own father relates how as a child he used to sleep on the deck outside his Kent bungalow bedroom even in freezing weather).

Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) and Scout Finch (Mary Badham) in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962)©Kobal

Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) and Scout Finch (Mary Badham) in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962)

The open porch became such an archetype in the US that landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing proposed it as the fundamental identity of American building, the thing that differentiated the nation’s houses from their English predecessors, a symbol of openness, hospitality, and the conversation and diplomacy it engendered. He is credited with popularising the porch for the classes that were moving from city to country as the suburbs exploded with the expansion of the railways. Jackson perceived the porch as a way of reconnecting alienated urban escapees to the landscape and to nature.

That famous front porch hospitality, of course, only went so far. After the end of slavery, black workers – if they needed to converse with the boss man – would usually be allowed as far as the porch, the neutral space neither inside nor out, an acceptable but not excessive hospitality. As the interface between races, between society and the homeowner, the porch was also the place where children would pick up things about how the world worked, overhearing bits of adult discussion.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than when six-year-old Scout Finch matures during the trial of wrongly accused young black man Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. She gets glimpses of trial gossip and explanations from her noble lawyer father, but it is the racist reactions of the townsfolk that make her understand the depth of the problem and the weight on her father’s shoulders. Scout’s neighbour, the mysterious and initially scary Boo Radley – who will eventually be her saviour (played by Robert Duvall in his first major Hollywood role) – arouses her interest. To begin to understand the withdrawn eccentric and his world view, she stands on his porch and puts herself in his shoes. That’s what the porch can do: act not only as interface between home and town but between an individual and the world.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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