I’ve been thinking a lot about courtyards this week. I’m working on a home that was designed in the 1930’s by Australian architect Marshall Clifton. Clifton spent a lot of time in Europe in the 1930’s and his designs are based on Spanish and Mediterranean architecture. His approach was quite unusual for the period. He felt that the time proven residential planning styles of Spain, Southern Italy and Provence were much more suitable for our Australian climate. He loved the way “..the Mediterranean villas made use of loggias (deep verandahs), courtyards and plantings as modifiers of the hot climate and as settings for outdoor way of life.” (Marshall Clifton Architect and Artist – Chapman and Richards)
I grew up in a home centred around a courtyard. It was designed by my father, architect Peter Hunt, in the late 1960’s and was based on the Sydney School style of architecture. While I took the light, warmth, connection to nature and (very) welcome breezes that wafted deep into our un-airconditioned house for granted, I now realise that it is very much part of my own style of architecture.
In fact courtyards have been an integral component of dwellings from the first human civilisations, whether it be tribes in South America and Africa to the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, Chinese and Japanese. The Chinese word for court literally translates to ‘well to heaven’. Central gathering spaces in dwellings acted as places of cultural and religious festivities, family or community gathering places and at times as places of protection. Apart from the social and cultural history of courtyards they still offer the most effective tool for maintaining environmental balance in the house. Perfect for the Australian climate!
So let me summarise what I love about courtyards.
A Roofless Room
I love that courtyards offer a place to socialise or retreat comfortably alone, a place of protected calm where you can connect with nature. I like that a courtyard offers a sense of enclosure offering security and scale. This can be achieved with the use of architectural elements such as pergolas with deciduous vines or a large feature tree, even a simple but beautiful umbrella. Just like a room with the sky as its ceiling and nature as its walls. Roofless room adapt to the seasons.
Environmentally and Financially Sustainable
A designed courtyard with appropriate landscaping for the seasons is environmentally and financially sustainable for your family. Cooling breezes in Summer wafting deep into your rooms, glorious warm sunlight captured in winter, the opportunity to have natural light to all living spaces even those in the centre of the house will mean you refrain from turning on the lights or air-conditioning – saving you money and of most important saving our planet.
Blend Inside and Outside
Well designed courtyards can create a seamless transition between outside and inside. I love the feeling that there’s no actual boundary between the inside of the home and the garden. “There’s a constant give and take between solid and void, nature and building, inside and out.” This is always enhanced by good design and materiality selections.
Flexible Spaces For Different Seasons
Courtyards can be designed for different purposes. In my design for the Bedfordale House Japanese styled pavilions are connected by ponds, timber decks and featured architectural links creating a stunning courtyards. Each landscaped space is designed to capture different views and be restful retreats at various times of the day and during the changing seasons.
Good Design Is Social And Sustainable
At Guildford House we designed a contemporary addition to a beautiful heritage house. The original 1890’s house was built along the northern boundary on a small block so the main outdoor entertaining area was to the south. It was really important to capture as much northern light as possible in to the new living space as well as capture the prevailing sea breezes from the south. We designed intimate courtyards to the north and east with feature deciduous trees for small social gatherings. In summer the courts are in shade and in winter they and the living areas are bathed in warm winter light. To the south beautiful landscaping elements offer a convivial space for large family entertaining. A Cabana to the southern boundary contains this landscaped space offering a sense of enclosure. I love that the living space feels like the “courtyard” amongst the trees.
Be Part Of Life In The Street
Highly detailed front verandahs and low open fences to houses in older suburbs invite engagement with your neighbour’s offering a sense of security and community as in our Heytesbury House. Unfortunately in some suburbs high fortress walls around houses appear to be the norm with the owners effectively turning their back on their neighbourhood. In my latest project we’ve designed a little sunken landscaped area in the front garden that is protected by a feature tree. The retired owners can sit and have cuppa under a beautiful tree surrounded by nature taking in the sun and feeling part of the street but with a comfortable distance. This means that they can have casual contact with their neighbours if they wish. Over time these social opportunities add to a sense of community in your street.
In My Home
My partner and I live on a large north facing block near the beach. But after work we retreat to our intimate (read small) landscaped courtyard to the front of our home for a quiet catch up on the days event over a glass of wine. With views to the street through our hedge we nurture our little garden as the sun sets over the ocean pretending we live alone in an apartment. A time and place for calm before the dinner, homework, bed time routines hit with our five teenage children! Pure bliss.
So yes I love courtyards and everything they offer but most importantly how they offer us the opportunity to stay connected to family and nature in this busy digital world.