A Place to Watch the World Go By
July 20, 2016

“For instance, in order for the pattern of events ‘watching the world go by’ to happen, it is essential that the porch should be a little raised above the level of the street; it is essential that the porch be deep enough, to let a group of people sit there comfortably; and it is essential, of course, that the front of the porch be open, pierced with openings, and that the roof is therefore supported on columns.”
Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

They say that ‘time is money.’ This line encapsulates a view that has become common; it is in the air we breath. It seems to make perfect sense.

And it is pernicious.

Time is the context given to us in which to live life. It is, in a sense, all that we have. To see money as the fundamental lens through which to evaluate time is a serious mistake.

It would have us think, for instance, that ‘watching the world go by’ is a bad use of time, or in any case a lesser use to be tolerated. Alexander, on the other hand, suggests that such watching is a basic pattern of human life, and that we should have a space designed to accommodate it.

This ‘watching’ is normally done together with others, and as such is a way of being-together. To be a spectator of the hurly burly, or of the simple activities of living, can foster an understanding that we humans cannot be reduced to our work, or to our particular roles in this temporal drama. Somehow by this watching we stand outside, and are not engulfed by the day to day.

In his essay ‘The Hind Tit’ in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, Andrew Lytle cites the account of a man named Olmstead who visited the rural south in the 1850’s. The northerner was amazed how some farm hands from whom he asked directions seemed perfectly willing to stand and shoot the breeze for some time. The visitor concluded that these country folk were lazy, and that they didn’t know how to value time.

Lytle begs to differ:
“This will be the most difficult task industrialism has undertaken, and on this rock its effort to urbanize the farm will probably split—to convince the farmer that it is time, not space, which has value. It will be difficult because the farmer knows that he cannot control time, whereas he can wrestle with space, or at least with that particular part which is his orbit. He can stop, set [i.e., sit], chaw, and talk, for, unable to subdue nature, it is no great matter whether he gets a little more or a little less that year from her limitless store. He has the choice of pleasant conversation, the excitement of hunting, fishing, hearing the hounds run, or of the possibility of accumulating greater spoils. Olmstead’s young ploughmen did well to stop and talk with the ‘quair strangy’; ask ‘whare he’s bin’; ‘whare he’s aimin’ to go’; and ‘air he bin to see his kin in Texas?’ for by so doing they exchanged an uncertain physical satisfaction for a certain mental pleasure.”

These ploughmen, in other words, implicitly recognize that while their lives are primarily taken up with labor, there is always time for simple human pleasures. While such pleasures have no monetary value, they are anything but a waste.

We might bemoan the fact that it took industrialism only a couple of generations to suppress this view of the old farmers. Now time is money, and by the way we act it seems there is never enough of either.

I’m inclined to think that the sharecroppers in the photo above knew the true value of time, and of money; and that they didn’t conflate the two. Ironically, they probably also lived as though they had enough, of both. In any case, on their porch they had a place to watch the world go by, and we can let our imagination run wild about the rich times they had there.

~ ~ ~

A final practical point from Alexander:
“Balconies and porches are often made small to save money; but when they are too small, they might just as well not be there. Whenever you build a balcony, a porch, a gallery, or a terrace always make it at least six feet deep.” A Pattern Language, pp. 782-84

This is the sixth of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: photo by by Russell Lee, the great photo-journalist of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930’s. Featured here are sharecroppers in Missouri during the Depression.

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  1. Having forgotten how I found your blog, I am quite pleased by it. Given current world and national (U.S.) events, this series is more than refreshing, it mentally transcends me to more peaceful times in my past. My heritage is rich and it does me good to reminisce.

    1. Lee, Thank you for sharing. I hope your reminiscences are rich and will be shared with others.

  2. Thanks John, Interesting points…I think I’ll spend the rest of the day on the porch swing! Take care

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  4. The porch at my mom’s house was added as her first renovation. Specifically tall and wide, differing just slightly from the others, but close enough to pass the Board after some negotiation. Used more than any other on the street. A few times a day for her cigarette, greeting the neighbors as they walk their dogs. A wandering neighborhood of children climbing the steps for a hug or a chat with Miss Marilyn who makes them laugh then pause, shocking and tickling their minds into growth. I can see the subtle shift in time as they breathe more deeply and the swing slows in contemplation. They return, thirsting for the conversation. A steady stream of visitors, boxes, young men selling better windows who themselves might see more clearly after a pause on the porch with my mom. Many hours sitting there gazing at the day, growing myself. Coffee, lemonade, chardonnay. Watermelon, cheese pita, and apple juice as my daughter grew. My mom, supporting steadfastly, holding, as the seasons, storms, and sunrises of life push, pull, batter, and soothe. The doctors tell us she won’t be here much longer and I will, not so long from now, have to step off her porch for the final time. But not yet. Not just yet.

    Your blog raises my awareness to many blessings and is a blessing itself Dr. Cuddeback, thank you.