How to Read a Building Facade
Street elevation of the 1300 block of 37th Place in the Martin Drive neighborhood showing entry and window modules.
The image of a quiet residential street, lined with single family homes, grassy front yards, porches, and fenced in back yards, suggests a certain predictable form of domestic tranquility and neighborly life. Building facades, set back from the street with a porch and a small front yard, are stage-sets where residents perform certain expected norms of sociability and neighborly behavior. Any deviation from these standards may seem threatening, asocial, reclusive, or plain rude. Yet, how exactly does this image project expectations of appropriate behavior or generate such reverent compliance from community residents?
Architectural scholar Dana Cuff defines neighborhood as “a territory shared by residents without implying internal civility or that residents share interests, backgrounds, or histories.” She argues that a neighborhood is merely a place which strives to be a community. Cuff says that neighborliness is the property that transforms a neighborhood into a community. Neighborliness is a human disposition that encourages strong conviviality among unrelated individuals living on the same street.
Building edges are important spaces where neighborliness is reproduced. Here, as people behave in sociable and culturally accepted ways, streets become communities and strangers become friends. These front edge of a home straddles two very different worlds— one that is privately owned and another that is public. The edge gathers the interior spaces of a family onto the exterior realm of the community. Human activities along this border zone socializes a private individual into a member of a larger collective. Iain Borden defines such a threshold as a thick edge that serves “not a division of things but a negotiation of flows.” Borden’s use of the term “negotiation of flows” suggests that building edges are porous spaces that filter movements and interactions across different worlds. This quote also suggests that edges are carefully assembled — its parts, such as doors, bay windows, porches, ornamental eaves and rooflines define a generative grammar of building parts organized within a formulaic syntax. In other words, building edges are cultural artifacts carefully put together out of a bricolage of architectural components.
Street elevation showing permeable elements on the façade.
Street elevation showing how thresholds of the façade might be occupied.
Porches built in the early 20th century across the US provide residents with an outdoor social space.
Walker Evans, Birmingham Boarding House, 1936.
Section of a typical Milwaukee duplex showing physical elements of protrusion.
Published on May 17, 2016. Columnist Sean Dietrich—on porches, and the lost, but gentle art of sitting without doing.
The duplex building type is a very common sight in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. Built in the early 20th century these two-storied, two-unit homes housed immigrants as well as native born Americans. The façades of these buildings have openings in the form of windows and doors that allow light, views, breeze, and human movement in and out. Architectural scholars have a term to describe this porosity of building facades — they call it permeability. Elements such as doors, windows, fences, bushes, or trees control the level of permeability. These elements can be easily adjusted by residents to allow for different levels of permeability. Curtains and blinds can be drawn over windows, doors can be opened, and windows locked. High levels of permeability in a façade allow for more intimate interactions with the street.
The front façade of a duplex has a minimum of two vertical bays — a window projection and a recessed entrance section. Architectural scholars call this pattern of projections and niches as protrusions. Protrusion is the distance an element is extruded from the façade towards the street. Protrusions occur at varying heights and create a hierarchy of increasingly public or private spaces. In a duplex, the first protrusion from the façade is the bay window extending out from the building. This window allows for views into the street. Other protrusions include porches, balconies, and other semi-enclosed extensions. A homeowner sitting on his porch engages the private interior and public street. Someone sitting in a bay window on an upper level interacts with people inside while someone sitting on the front steps engages with the sidewalk. Each spot on the building edge encourages distinct culturally-sanctioned behaviors and provides opportunities for varying levels of social interaction. Inhabiting these spaces reinforces a shared culture and identity on the block and in the neighborhood.
 Dana Cuff, "The Figure of the Neighbor: Los Angeles Past and Future." American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2004): 559-82.
 Iain Borden, “Thick Edge: Architectural Boundaries in the Post Modern Metropolis,” In Intersections: Architectural Histories and Critical Theories. Iain Borden and Jane Rendell (Eds.), (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 240.
Residents of this L.A. neighborhood transformed a simple set of steps into a rich social space.
Photo by James Rojas, pps.org/blog/front-porch-placemaking-the-latino-connection-to-the-street