Monday, January 22, 2018

PRIVACY IN THE HOME: Why We Lack It In The West

Alfred Hitchcock's film "Rear Window"
played upon the lack of privacy
endemic to city life.
Two centuries ago, when most Americans lived hundreds of feet from their nearest neighbors, domestic privacy was seldom an issue. But as cities such as New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia began to grow by leaps, building lots began shrinking. Ultimately, so-called rowhouses were built cheek-by-jowl, facing directly onto sidewalks or overlooking a patchwork of rear yards, making privacy a precious commodity. In time, this living style was taken for granted. Films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, in which James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound character kills time by spying on his neighbors, helped turn a lack of privacy into one of the cliches of big-city life.  

Sadly, though, lack of privacy isn’t limited to urban America anymore. Nowadays, even suburban homes are shoehorned onto tight lots with just a sliver of space between them. The privacy issue has come home to the heartland.

Typical Islamic streetscape (this is in
Hama, Syria) emphasizes privacy
and the sanctity of the home.
So how to maintain privacy under such conditions? History yields some excellent design strategies. In Islamic countries, for example, houses were densely packed along narrow alleys, yet were among the most private dwellings we know of. Why? Islamic cultures placed enormous value on the sanctity of the family, and hence on domestic privacy. Their houses turned inward, with major rooms facing a lush central courtyard.  The street facades, on the other hand, might be completely blank, with only a single door to mark them.  Even roof terraces, which were often used for sleeping in desert climates, were carefully screened from view.

So dear was privacy in these parts that an ordinance in one village declared:  “Anyone may, if necessary, climb up his date palm, provided he previously informs the neighbor into whose house he might obtain a view.”

Traditional Asian houses also placed a high value on privacy, with many ordinary homes being hidden behind tall walls relieved only by a pair of gates leading into a courtyard. Here, as in Islamic architecture, there’s no reluctance whatever to have minimal openings facing the street.

Planting can make an excellent privacy screen; here
it extends the height of a wall without violating
the local height limit on property line fencing.
In the West, however, most architects and city planning officials feel compelled to put a window-filled “happy face” on the street side of every house, offering little visual protection to the occupants, either literally or psychologically. Variations are seldom attempted, thanks to obsolete zoning laws and meddlesome design review boards. And as long as planners hang onto the ideal of houses addressing the street rather than inner courtyards, we will continue to have some of the least private homes in the world. 

Other than starting from scratch, what can be done to enhance the privacy of Western houses?  

A simple but ingenious privacy screen with a window. When
overgrown with vines, this structure will provide a lovely
and enticing garden backdrop.
•  Choose your home carefully. Avoid houses with windows that look straight down a public street, or directly into a neighboring house (remarkably common in tract developments with "flopped" floor plans). Be wary of rear yards surrounded by taller buildings such as apartment houses— you’ll never feel at ease outdoors with all those windows staring down at you.  

•  If you’re stuck with what you have, consider some traditional ways of increasing privacy. Walls or screens built on the ground some distance away, or decorative grilles or louvers placed directly in front of windows, are both simple and effective devices. Be careful to use a design that complements the style of your house, however—perhaps a traditional turned wood grille for a Spanish Revival home, or a pierced metal screen for a Modernist one. Even leaded or patterned window glass will create a psychological buffer against unwelcome observers.    

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