In America—especially in the greater Los Angeles area where I go to university—suburbia dominates the landscape. The 1950s saw a new pattern in housing development where work and home were separated. After the war, people wanted to move into the suburbs and into single-family homes, drive a car, and fulfill their individual gendered roles in society. This urban vs. suburban divide and subsequent “sprawl” of development made for a heavy reliance on the automobile as mass transportation became inefficient. As current movements in urban planning in California push for the revitalization of cities and encourage people to move into urban areas, the idea of the courtyard has potential in helping solve environmental/social/architectural issues.
Fig. 1: American Suburbia
The courtyard as a building form and as a passive cooling technique have existed for hundreds of years by civilizations across the globe that include Greeks, Romans, and many Islamic civilizations (Al-Hussayen, 1995). Although variations of the courtyard house have been observed across different groups, its basic properties remain the same. Culturally, the courtyard has played a vital role in Islamic society. While it serves as a space for gathering or relaxation, it for example also provides the necessary amount of privacy for Saudi families. The detached house in contrast to the courtyard house exposes outdoor spaces to neighbor’s windows, resulting in “dead spaces” where these areas go unused. The courtyard provides full privacy for the family as well as isolating it from outside noise (Al-Hussayen, 1995).
Aside from the social and cultural features of the courtyard, this building form is known as a thermal regulator, especially in hot arid regions where ventilation of living spaces is essential. As the air in the courtyard warms, it rises and creates a natural convection current. Cool air flows through the openings of rooms and creates airflow. The courtyard can only affect internal spaces if openings allowed for the circulation of the generated air from the courtyard through the rooms (Bagneid, 1992).
Along with passive ventilation, the introversion of the rooms—their orientation towards the center courtyard, as opposed to outwards, also shields against windstorms and exterior noise from the surrounding streets (Rapoport, 2007).
Known for their efficiency in use of space, courtyard houses are highly regarded for the fact that they reduce the area of settlements (Rapoport, 2007).
Courtyards are oftentimes accentuated with landscaping or fountains, which means it is given the same attention to detail as interior spaces. Additionally, the coupling of the courtyard with elements such as the mashrabiya, a traditional Islamic window screen that oftentimes displays an intricate geometric pattern. In addition to the aesthetic value it adds to a home, the mashrabiya also plays a role in its passive cooling. While the perforations still allow for the ventilation of air, the minimization of open area limits the amount of solar exposure. The mashrabiya successfully synthesizes the importance of Islamic craft and culture while continuing to serve a practical and essential function. The careful, interior-like treatment of the courtyard, coupled with elements such as the mashrabiya, interestingly blur the lines between interior and exterior.
The versatility of the courtyard lies not only in how one can decorate it, but also its flexibility in size and shape. Although the most common shape is a square or rectangle, circular or polygonal shapes have also been observed. More important than form is the proportion of the courtyard relative to the size and shape of the land (Al-Hussayen, 1995). This highlights the potential to experiment with different forms and challenging the traditional notion of a courtyard.
Bjarke Ingels’s Danish Pavilion for the Shanghai Expo 2010 is perhaps an extreme example that uses the idea of the courtyard. Although the central area in this case is inaccessible, the space can be experienced from multiple levels.
The potential for the courtyard–as a formal and functional element–to be utilized in contemporary architecture is immense.
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