We live in a house built in 1950, long before indoor-outdoor flow was ever conceived of and there is no doubt that we lack it. At one time, I had ideas to rectify this and went as far as getting concept plans drawn by an architect. The estimate of $100,000 for the work was a bit of a disincentive, so we did not proceed, for which I am now relieved.
One of the latest house and garden magazines has an article on the renovation of a Wellington property, where the owner is quoted as saying: "We didn't want to open the front of the house to the weather because, if we did, we'd all get blown away. We designed our house as an interior home, not an exterior one. Wellington is not a sit-outside sort of environment." Actually, much of this country is not best suited to outside entertaining, at least when it comes to evening dining. Witness the plethora of fire pits, gas heaters and outdoor fireplaces. But you would not think that to look at modern design in houses and gardens.
One of the properties featured in the new book Contemporary Gardens of New Zealand shows an outdoor dining area on an exposed platform with no shelter or shade and down a flight of 37 steps. Or it may be 39. I bet they never use it. Who wants to dash up so many steps to get the dipping sauce you forgot, or the serving spoon? Make that glass of wine last, because the first to finish gets to climb the steps to the house to get another bottle or two. If the owners leave the dirty dishes on the table until the next morning, the neighbours will be able to see and judge. That particular property has a second outdoor eating area immediately by the house, so you can be pretty sure that is the one they use.
Oft times, homeowners place seating and entertaining areas too far from the service areas. I paced it out and think that few people would want their outdoor eating area more than 20 paces from the kitchen. It becomes inconvenient and if it is inconvenient, you won't use it much. I've seen too many summer houses placed where they will create a focal point in the garden, but they are just in the wrong place for use. Unless you have servants at your beck and call (and children are an unreliable substitute), save your money and make a focal point in some other way.
Most of us will wander a little farther with just a cup of coffee in hand, but again, if your seating areas are beyond about 30 paces from the electric jug or fridge, you are not likely to use them for morning teas or evening drinks. Even more than gazebos, garden seats are often stationed as focal points rather than for use. Never is this more obvious than when it is but one gaily painted chair. I think that seats need to be placed where you will use them, not used as de facto garden ornaments.
Garden rooms are my preferred solution after noticing these in a number of English gardens. These differ from gazebos and summer houses in that they have the capacity for more protective walls. There are times when just a roof is not enough to keep the situation pleasant enough to linger longer. Most of us find eating outdoors very pleasant in the right conditions and it can also make for more relaxed entertaining. After all, gardens are best enjoyed when you are out among them, not viewed from house windows. So a charming and versatile garden room situated not more than 20 paces from my kitchen would be a lovely addition. With some forethought and investigation, it could be so much more than just a freestanding conservatory or a trellised gazebo.
In the meantime, we make do with a comfortable outdoor dining suite beneath a large sun umbrella that is good for daytime use when there are more than just the two of us, but not so good for long evenings, even in summer. The closest we get to a garden room and the reason I know one would be well used, is our favoured sitting spot, which we use all year round and at all times of the day. It is enclosed on three sides but completely open to the garden. It is just a glorified front porch and it only fits two comfortably, but I think it is a pointer in the right direction for my choice of a garden entertaining area.
I leave you with the very best example of a garden room or gallery that I have seen. It might look just a little pretentious in my garden, being of Moorish origin and dating to the 10th century and located in a palace at the Alhambra palace and Generalife gardens in Granada, Spain. But imagine entertaining in that space and glorying in your garden surrounds.