“If your ceiling should fall, then you have lost a room, but gained a courtyard. Think of it that way.”  –Alexander McCall Smith

The Courtyard Story

Over the years, the ways of working and living have changed drastically. Consecutively, the design has accommodated these shifts in behavior while creating spaces. However, one design element that seems to be perennially trending across the globe is that of the COURTYARD.

Courtyards are enclosed spaces surrounded by walls or buildings but are open to the sky. This property of being enclosed and yet open makes it an interesting insert. The introduction of courtyards in houses may have originated due to practical reasons, but it has integrated into people’s lives as a way of living. Therefore, contemporary courtyards in various regions are a result of not only the environmental practicalities but also about social and cultural influences.

Uses and Functions

Although the conception of courtyards was to be able to control micro-climatic influences within the structures, they have been used for a variety of purposes across timelines, regions, and even religions. Early findings point towards courtyards being used only to keep cattle. With passing time, they are used for essential activities like cooking, washing, drying, storage, etc.; leisure activities like sleeping, gathering or socializing; celebrations of festivals and other family occasions; or even for recreational activities like playing or landscaping. Many religious and educational institutes have also incorporated courtyards such that they have become important elements of the style of architecture.

Courtyard and Urban Morphology

The insertion of courtyards as a recurring feature in the urban landscape creates interesting dynamics in the urban morphology of the region. With varied hierarchies of access, publicness, and volumes, these spaces provide for unique spatial-characteristics and control-dynamics to the defined regions. The concept of tactical urbanism cannot be overlooked in these physical and intangible urban forms.

The widespread use of courtyards within the regions has also led to interesting urban tissue and morphology to cities like Berlin, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Syria, Udaipur, and Aleppo to name a few.

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Morphology samples for London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul ©researchgate.net
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Barcelona – Aerial view ©designboom.com

Origins and Beyond

In a way, it can be said that the courtyards originated from the hot and dry regions. The earliest courtyards have been found in the excavations at the Neolithic Yarmukian site at Sha’ar HaGolan, in Syria, dating back to 6000-6500 B.C. The houses consist of several rooms, surrounding a courtyard. Historic evidence of courtyards can also be found at the sites of the city of Ur, Sumeria, and the settlements of Indus valley civilization. Two storey houses constructed around a shared open square were found.

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City of Ur – reconstruction ©/external-preview.redd.it
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Harappa, Indus Valley Civilisation- reconstructed ©University of Minnesota

Courtyards Around the World.

1. Middle Eastern Culture

The living systems and, therefore, the courtyards in these regions are a reflection of the nomadic culture of the people. Initially, simple structures with open central courtyards and small rooms with flat accessible roofs to be used during different times of the day, these have developed into complex multi-courtyard system and hierarchies which not only provide convective cooling but are also used for various purposes including separation of men and women quarters, religious ablutions, etc.

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Caravan Sarai, Sabzevar ©org
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Old houses in the UAE. ©https://www.researchgate.net
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Ummayad Mosque, Damascus ©madainproject.com
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Ummayad Mosque, Damascus ©madainproject.com

2. East Asian Culture

Traditionally, especially in the Chinese culture, this consisted of several houses around a square or a semi-private space. Often people sharing the courtyard would be relatives or extended family. These spaces were used as gathering for people in the houses and behaved as extensions of the private domain.

One of the most established typologies was that of the Siheyuan house type, which gave the courtyard a very multi-faceted construct.

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Siheyuan House Typology ©www.chinahighlights.com
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Siheyuan House Typology ©chinahighlights.com

3. European Culture

The very diverse use of central open to sky space surrounded by buildings is found in the European context. An emphasis on such spaces as a part of the public domain is found in the context with layers of covered, transitional, and open spaces.

Forums and atriums in roman Architecture, Agora in Greek architecture, the Patios of Spain, Tudor homes of Britain, all point towards the varying sizes, combinations, and degrees of uses of courtyards in the European culture. The particular use of public squares and courtyards within institutes and communal buildings with functions ranging from recreation, meeting spaces to landscaping, fountains, water catchments to even storing can be seen.

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Roman residential Atriums ©ancient.eu
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Internal Patio, Cordoba, Spain ©needpix.com
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Roman Bath Houses ©earthlymission.com
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Courtyard in a cathedral, Seville ©anaussieinitaly.com

4. Indian Culture

In the Indian architectural context, the courtyards play a very important role. Even with the varying climatic influences across the country, courtyards have been a constant tool used to control weather conditions, and also as a unifying element to create a space for social dynamics within the household. Courtyards are formative spaces for interaction in all the structures they exist.

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Courtyard in a Haveli house in Rajasthan ©www.wanderloot.files.wordpress.com

From Indus Valley Civilisation to Mughal architecture to Colonial architecture in the north and, from the Cholas dynasty to Maratha occupation to the Vijayanagara dynasty and beyond, the usage and expansion of small squares into multiple courtyards and multi-layered spaces in houses and other residential quarters is very eminent.

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Courtyard in a Kerala house ©www.allegradesigns.in

The inclusion of courtyards in the Indian culture is not only in the residential sectors but also in all other domains of public and private lifestyle. In temples for people to gather, in mosques for areas of ablutions, palaces and forts to hold courts, for separation of men and women spaces to practice defense and even for weekly markets; courtyards are an extended portion of people’s everyday lives.

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Temple courtyard, Mathura, UP, India ©mathura.nic.in

5. African Culture

The African context of courtyards is very interesting because it spans a very long history and a large area. Many hot and dry regions of the continent reflect the middle-eastern type of courtyard formations. There is also inter-cultural influence in architecture here, due to the importance of northern Africa in the trade route channels.

The tribal homesteads of Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Namibian, and others still reflect the traditional courtyards of the region. The Egyptian, Moroccan, Somalian, and other architecture incorporate varied usage of courtyard typologies, reflecting the vital and dynamic culture of the region.

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Mamluk Townhouse, Egypt ©wordpress.com
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Riad or Internal garden, Marrakech ©bosworth property marrakech

Contemporary practices

Due to the flexible nature of the courtyards, many architects have tried to experiment and expand the potential of courts and such open spaces within the buildings. For example, the introduction of courtyards by Tadao Ando in the Japanese traditional architecture has led to the creation of a new type of landscape definition.

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Azuma House by Tadao Ando, Osaka, Japan ©patrickeischen.com
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Barbican Complex, London ©arch2o.com
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Jawahar Kala Kendra by Charles Correa, Jaipur, India ©britannica.com
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Square in Portland, Tactical Urbanism ©pps.org

With land and real estate becoming an expensive commodity, the insertion of courtyards becomes an interesting challenge for social and community welfare. In densely populated urban regions, courtyards can provide a safe break for adults and children both. Contemporary courtyards call for multi-usage, flexible recreational spill out spaces for communities to mingle. The definition of usage, if left to an aware and vigilant public, can generate spatial interchanges of inconceivable dimensions.



An Architecture graduate with a postgraduation in Urban Design and an Educationist by profession. She is on a constant quest for knowledge be it through reading, travel, people, experiences or even just by observing life go by. She believes words are powerful and beautiful and can help heal the world.