Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill are graced with an abundance of old porches, which fall into a broad category of architectural spaces I call Outdoor Rooms. Almost all look good . . . but many of them fall far short regarding their functionality. Why?
Making a porch too small is a common design flaw. The mistake begins when one uses the scale of rooms inside the house to establish the scale of the porch outside. In designing a porch that is intended primarily for entertaining, the ‘scale’ of clouds and trees should be the determining factor. Make the porch larger than you think necessary, and make the footprint more like a square than a long narrow rectangle. A porch that is roughly 20 feet by 25 feet is one that I have found makes a commodious and inviting Outdoor Room perfect for entertaining. Think about how much space is needed for you and your guests to move around freely and then liberally add to that the square footage required for porch furniture. Almost-square porches also provide better shelter from a summer rain or the hot slanting rays of the sun. But be sure to make the porch as high as possible, within reason. High ceilings better allow daylight to penetrate deeper into the house, a common complaint about many porches with low ceilings. But be careful to consider the view looking down on the porch roof from above. Trellises, such as I used at the entrance to the Elfant-Wissahickon offices on Germantown Avenue (formerly Reese’s Pharmacy), help define that porch without closing it in . . . and for residential uses, trellises create a sense of privacy.
Porches are also often proportioned like a corridor inside the house, resulting in a constricted gallery that is useful for little more than getting from the entrance to a side door. You and your friends end up sitting on chairs, lined up like a row of ducks in a shooting gallery with your legs pulled in uncomfortably so people can pass. You’re forced to look out rather than at each other.
A grand porch that has continually inspired me through my 40+ years in architecture is the 400 year old, four story high Outdoor Room atop the Ali Quapu palace overlooking the maidan (public square) in Isfahan, Iran. I have wished for years to see in person the exquisitely carved wood ceiling of the porch which can be seen in a Google image search: ‘ali quapu+isfahan+porch+ceiling.’ That search will also bring you photos of the dramatic porch fronting the Chehel Sutun palace which is in the royal gardens behind the Ali Quapu. One day in the not too distant future, Iran will hopefully be a safe and welcoming place to visit once again.
Joel Levinson 1982
One of the most dramatic Outdoor Rooms I ever saw personally is a hollow cube 350 feet high designed by Danish architect Johann Otto van Spreckelsen, situated in Paris on axis with the Arche de Triomphe, the obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, the Tuilleries, and the Louvre. La Grande Arche de la Défense is half-office-building, half-monumental-porch. This huge void, open on two sides, collects the vast expanse of the grand promenade that extends far out from the building’s front steps and draws it up into a stirring and awesome vertical climax. A hanging hi-tech tent suspended within the great porch forms a subsidiary Outdoor Room. From this tent I took a thrilling ride in an open elevator cage to the top of the building and looked out for miles, back toward central Paris. C’est fantastique! Regrettably, the elevator operation has since been terminated for safety reasons, but one can still take a conventional elevator to a roof top observation deck.
Outdoor Rooms have been a core component in my own design vocabulary, starting as far back as when I was a student at Penn. For the first residence I designed once out of school, fully one-third the volume of the house is devoted to a two-story high porch that overlooks and frames a stunning view of the Wissahickon. The Arbor House I designed roughly ten years later in the Melrose Park area, with its four interconnected porches, led in 1982 to an invitation to write an article about Outdoor Rooms for an international Japanese publication, GA Houses (Global Architecture). As illustrated in the article, any open-air space with a roof (perforated or solid) can be regarded as an Outdoor Room. Commonplace porches, like those in Chestnut Hill, are the most familiar form of an Outdoor Room but covered streets, colonnades, spaces carved deep into an otherwise solid building, and free-standing pavilions also fall into this category.
Although grand porches have their place in a broad overview of Outdoor Rooms, nothing in this article is meant to disparage those intimate little porches overlooking a still lake with just enough room for an old café table and two aluminum lawn chairs. Consider your goals and scale accordingly.
Anyone interested in receiving a free digital copy of my GA article on Outdoor Rooms should email me at email@example.com.