Head Butler encourages us to think in a new direction

Posted on June 24, 2014 by Designer Previews

Jesse Kornbluth is DP’s guest blogger today. His ever-brilliant Head Butler post focuses on Ross Chapin’s book about Pocket Neighborhoods, and the ideas Jesse shares on the subject are resonant and vital.  Especially now. Anyone who drives the roads of the Hampton’s sees the Joe Farrell signs growing more prevalent.  I see on a daily basis, more large scale development with super sized houses going up.  Chapin presents us with a concept that’s the antithesis to what prevails in most of the USA.  Thank you, Jesse, for doing what you do so well, and so often: Leading us with your words, to think just a little more carefully about who we are, and what we do.

Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World, by Ross Chapin

Head Butler post By JESSE KORNBLUTH  Published: Jun 23, 2014

$1.7 trillion in the coffers of American corporations, not being invested, not creating jobs, not strengthening infrastructure, just making money for owners who have basically abandoned any obligations as citizens. Banks paying billions in fines for the privilege of keeping billions more. The environment. Gridlock. It’s too grim to think about. So. mostly, we don’t. Privately, not yet sharing our fears with others, we think: The empire may be failing, but I still have to live. Is there any way I can live appropriately, in harmony with the planet? And is there some way I can feel less… lonely? Ross Chapin, an architect who lives in a town of 1,000 on Whidbey Island, Washington, started thinking about a more humane way to live in the 1980s. And he came up with a solution. It was not, as he writes, a new solution: Humans are gregarious — we like to live around others. We also have a desire — and perhaps a need — for personal space. Sometime in the last generation, however, we became so charmed with the dream of a ‘house of one’s own’ that we overshot our desire for privacy, leaving us marooned on our own personal island in a sea of houses… A picture began formulating in my mind that was like the Russian nesting dolls…. pocket neighborhoods. What is a pocket neighborhood? A clustered group of neighboring houses or apartments gathered around a shared open space — a garden courtyard, a pedestrian street, a series of joined backyards, or a reclaimed alley — all of which have a clear sense of territory and shared stewardship. This is a delicious concept. Like the Mini Cooper, Chapin suggests: “small, sensual, well-engineered and reliable.” Exciting to read about. Great to look at. Important as an idea. And, if you’re up for it, a life-changer. [To buy “Pocket Neighborhoods” from Amazon, click here.] In 1996, Chapin built his first pocket neighborhood: the Third Street Cottages in the town where he lives. Just a sprinkling of homes. But not 2-story houses. One-and-a-half story cottages. Most about 650 square feet, with lofts up to 200 square feet. 
To ensure privacy between neighbors, the cottages ‘nest’ together: the ‘open’ side of one house faces the ‘closed’ side of the next. You could say the houses are spooning! The open side has large windows facing its side yard (which extends to the face of neighboring house), while the closed side has high windows and skylights. The result is that neighbors do not peer into one another’s world. At the same time, there’s no way to hide — you have a front porch. A carefully designed porch. The railings are low, so you can sit and see the sidewalk. And so passersby can see you. Stop and chat? Has to happen. Watch unsupervised kids at play? You are the neighborhood cop. “Pocket Neighborhoods” has a rich history, and Chapin gives the guided tour. Almshouses in the Netherlands. A Methodists Camp Community on Martha’s Vineyard. Southern California Cottage Courtyards. New Urban communities. Co-housing. Interesting stuff. If you are single and not a collector, this is a book for you. If you’re young marrieds and don’t want a McMansion, this is for you. A small family, maybe. Boomers with grown children, for sure. Seniors, definitely. Bill Gates, whose current home fills 60,000 square feet? I think not.

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