The pandemic has caused many people to rethink their spatial needs, both inside and out. It was a moment where many apartment and condominium dwellers decided that they could not bear the same four walls (or 18) in which to eat, sleep, work, exercise, educate their children, and entertain themselves. They wanted “wide open spaces,” “home, home on the range,” or just one more room for some extra privacy: an alternative to taking their office Zoom calls in the bathroom. The one other thing that became very high on the wish list was a big backyard because, you know, “we’ve got kids.”
I hardly think I need to consult my favorite architects from antiquity or the Italian Renaissance to see what they would have to say about kids. To be sure, all would have approved. But as a sworn classicist and student of architectural history, I am curious to know what Vitruvius, Vignola, Alberti, and Scamozzi might have said about our fascination with the backyard. I am guessing that their inquiry would have started with questions of utility, and then beauty.
From the point of view of utility, it seems to me that the vast parterre of perfectly clipped grass that came to be known as the backyard, emulated for its civility and venerated as an indicium of suburban achievement, has outlived its usefulness. Historically, the backyard functioned as a service area that involved clothes washing, trash burning, vegetable gardening, chicken cooping, chicken plucking, and other things that facilitated the operation of the American household. As we moved through to the 20th century, many of these activities had been replaced by machinery that resided somewhere in the house as well as commercially available products that obviated the need for growing one’s own food. Throughout the 19thcentury and early 20th centuries, the front yard, however, remained a way of communicating with the public, providing the homeowners with an opportunity to signal to one’s neighbors their sense of civic pride by what they planted and how it was maintained.
Having been completely transmogrified from workhorse to thoroughbred, the backyard came to function as an outdoor living room. For many of us who grew up in the suburbs in the 1960s, the backyard frequently served as a backdrop for barbeques, clambakes, cocktail parties, birthday parties, and the occasionally “overly refreshed” next-door neighbor. It hosted any number of any events celebrated throughout the course of the year that involved steaks, whiskey, and cigarettes. As entertaining at home waned during the ensuing generations, the backyard became as vestigial as the stone guttae that once served a purpose when they were actual wooden pegs on a Doric entablature. This once vibrant space that was also a place for children to experience nature in all of its manicured and carefully curated beauty is now devoid of botanical discoveries, scraped knees, mosquito bites, and first stolen kisses. This sacrosanct and empty space is more desirable than it ever was because of the grip it has on the American psyche. The idea of what it is, rather than what it is.
The American landscape designer, horticulturist, and architectural influencer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) was a strong advocate of public parks as a “drawing room” for not only those who could not afford their own spacious gardens but also as a place where a sense of community and morality could be developed and encouraged. He believed that public parks were essential to the well-being of the country. Having the good fortune of living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I can attest to the veracity of Downing’s theory. When most of the gyms and other places of public recreation were closed during the first part of last year, Rock Creek Park was, as usual, fully open to the public. For the first time, many Washingtonians took advantage of this opportunity to experience the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted. Abandoning their own capacious and underused backyards, many of my neighbors (with their children, I might add) were walking, jogging, bicycling, and visiting with each other—something that they had not done before in the privacy and sanctity of their own spaces.
Given that children tend to spend more time nowadays on their tablets, computers, and mobile phones, and less time chasing the family dog around, I am still bewildered by the continual request for a house with a big backyard. Given the significant cost of maintaining this ideal (watering, trimming, blowing, weeding, and fertilizing), isn’t time we adopted a more environmentally responsible approach to this aspirational anachronism? I can assure you, you will enjoy a walk in the park with your kids and your neighbors far more than mowing the lawn.