In a 1975 article in the wonderfully-named journal Palimpsest, Richard H. Thomas traced the movement “from porch to patio,” showing how the change in domestic architecture both reflected and reinforced changes in social structure.
The porch, he points out, facilitated conversation between the inhabitants of a house, their neighbours and other passers-by: “It was important to know one’s neighbours and to be known by them. The porch was a platform from which to observe the activities of others. It also facilitated and symbolised a set of social relationships and the strong bond of community feeling which people during the nineteenth century supposed was the way God intended life to be lived” (123).
During the post-World War II suburban building boom, urban dwellers left the inner cities, but brought the urban preference for anonymity with them (125). As they settled into suburbs, young families wanted to build homes that were both unique and private. The patio, located at the rear of the house and often surrounded by a high wall or fence, came in to solve both concerns:
“The patio was an extension of the house, but far less public than the porch. It was easy to greet a stranger from the porch but exceedingly difficult to do from the backyard patio. While the porch was designed in an era of slow movement, the patio is part of a world which places a premium on speed and east of access. The father of a nineteenth-century family might stop on the porch on his way into the house, but the suburban man wishes to enter the house as rapidly as possible to accept the shelter that the house provides from the mass of people he may dwell with all day” (126).
Both porch and patio embody the belief that “a man’s home is his castle,” though in different ways. The porch is a “drawbridge” while the patio is a keep, “a closed courtyard that suggests that the king and his family are tired of the world and seek only the companionship of their immediate family or intimate peers” (127).
That last comment is important. The patio isn’t an anti-social space. But it is a space for chosen sociality, expressing a desire for control over contact with others and also symbolising the fact that, with the advent of the automobile, one’s closest friends may live at some distance. What’s lost is the serendipity of the porch, its openness to contact with strangers.