Bringing the outdoors in

Cascading living space
Cascading living space to the backyard of an East Isles home. Submitted photo

Whether strolling through a picturesque neighborhood, browsing the web for home improvement inspiration or paging through old issues of a favorite architectural magazine, “bringing the outdoors in” has been and continues to be a pervasive theme. It’s an increasingly important one as the pandemic will likely stay with us throughout the fast approaching winter. 

The universal and timeless idea of blurring the line between inside and outside can be traced to Japanese and Roman architecture, examples including elaborate gardens, pergolas and thermal baths. Applications throughout Southwest are as vast as the concept’s history. From humble planter boxes to hefty architectural elements, examples go well beyond a mere lake view.

Window boxes
Window boxes full of begonias bring pops of color and texture in all seasons to the facade of a home east of Bde Maka Ska. Submitted photo

On the simpler end of the spectrum, window boxes add vibrant textures and colors between a home’s facade and yard. These subtle architectural elements span style and era with examples sprinkled throughout Southwest’s historic, mid-century modern and contemporary homes. Spring and summer can find them filled with annual flowers, but they also host festive arrangements throughout autumn and winter.

A historically recognized example can occasionally be spotted amid neighborhood treetops. Sleeping porches first appeared in the early 1900s during the tuberculosis crisis. The semi-outdoor spaces enabled fresh air to circulate around people as they slept. They continued to rise in popularity, especially in hot midwestern summers, as a means of providing natural “air conditioning” and ambient noise to sleepers. The Theodore Wirth House offers an early-20th-century example set within Lyndale Farmstead Park. While the home’s front facade is locally recognizable, the sleeping porch is a lesser known feature found on the “back” side, visible from the park as well as Kings Highway and Lakewood Cemetery.

Theo Wirth Sleeping Porch
The Theodore Wirth House in Lyndale Farmstead Park includes a classic example of a sleeping porch.

Where window boxes merge nature with the walls of a home subtly, other architectural elements take a more substantial approach to connecting with the landscape. In the case of an Italianesque home located near Lake of the Isles, a bridge spans over its driveway to connect to its yard. The link leads to an outdoor room of sorts that dances with dappled light from the surrounding willow branches. Where the need for a driveway is typically a banal experience, the bridge elevates (pun intended) the journey to that of a European forecourt.

East Isles home
Literally bridging an East Isles home to the outside. Submitted photo

Although recent design innovations — pivoting, sliding and folding glass walls and retractable screens — allow you to connect to the outdoors without physically leaving the home, the beauty of simply executed transitional spaces can’t be over emphasized. An elegant deck can do wonders by simply extending the floor plane to the outside. Eliminating this division allows the living room to gently cascade down to the courtyard while creating a multitude of gathering possibilities.

The bridge of the “Isles House”
The bridge of the “Isles House” in Kenwood allows natural paths of water to flow below the dining room and trickle down into a sculpted rain garden near the sidewalk. Photo by Troy Thies

The “Isles House,” designed by David Wagner of SALA Architects, is an “open-armed” conceptual bridge between the physical home, the natural environment and the surrounding activity at Lake of the Isles. The home’s layout is composed of two “wings” physically bridged together by a central dining room that hovers over the landscape. The bridge allows natural paths of water to flow below the dining room and trickle down into a sculpted rain garden near the sidewalk. The elevated structure artfully creates lake views, cross ventilation and daylight from a unique vantage point on a wedge-shaped site. On a breezy summer day, windows on the bridge open and connect those gathering for a meal inside with those picnicking on the lawn of the lake shore.

Finding meaningful ways to connect with the outdoors (no matter how simple or complex) brings hope and inspiration to how we might be able to better connect to one another, especially as the seasons start to change. Needing to maintain distance between our loved ones and neighbors during the pandemic, we look for opportunities to give shelter and warmth while inviting in the beauty of the outdoors (along with some fresh air). 

Share your favorite examples of bringing the outdoors in by emailing [email protected].