|Traditional Persian courtyard house|
with pool at center.
Not long ago, in a bleak industrial suburb of San Francisco, I came upon an old house wedged incongruously between a mustard factory and a plating shop. From the street, there was little to see but a garage and a blank facade, with a narrow gate squeezed between them.
But beyond the gate was a long narrow passage, and when I reached the end of it I had to pinch myself: I was standing in an amazingly lush secret garden, snugly surrounded by the picturesque bays and roofs of the house. At its center, a waterfall burbled placidly into a meandering koi pond, and narrow paths snaked away into mysterious recesses beyond the cool plants. Compared to the harsh streetscape outside, it may as well have been Wonderland.
That’s the magic of a courtyard house: It can feel placid and secure in even the most unfavorable location. The ancient Persians, who knew something about harsh surroundings, were wise to this concept thousands of years ago. They built their houses around central gardens designed as miniature representations of paradise, emphasizing the water that was so precious in the parched lands beyond their walls.
|Atrium of a reconsturcted Roman villa at Pompeii,|
with the columned peristyle offering shade to
the surrounding rooms.
Urban Roman houses also turned their backs to the street, preferring to face inward toward a garden court they called the atrium.
But the courtyard house reached its ultimate expression in China. Among the most famous of these is the Wang Shi Yuan (“garden of the master of the fishing nets”), located in a densely-populated district of Suzhou. Despite its crowded setting, the moment one enters the house and gardens, all thoughts of urban congestion vanish. The cleverly convoluted arrangement of pavilions, plants, and water makes the tiny residence seem boundless.
|The Garden of the Master of Nets, located in my second home|
of Suzhou, China, is actually a residence
surrounding a central courtyard. First constructed
in 1140, it was restored in 1785.
Given the many advantages of the courtyard house, why don’t we see more of them in the United States? Originally, it was because of our country’s vast area and relatively sparse population. We simply got used to building a monolithic house smack in the center of a huge piece of land. Back then, there was little point in having an enclosed court.
Things have changed, however. Population has increased by magnitudes, and even our formerly spacious suburban lots have shrunk to minimal size, leaving little useful land surrounding our homes. Moreover, urban and suburban streets have become less friendly year by year, making security a top consideration of urban and suburban dwellers.
The gated courtyard house offers an elegant and time-honored solution to these problems, and many more.
|Traditional Spanish courtyard home in Cordoba.|
Unfortunately, U.S. zoning codes haven’t kept pace with the changes in our cities, and they continue to make it difficult to build courtyard houses. Because of long-entrenched setback requirements, regulators continue to frown on zero-setback construction in many residential areas. Most cities continue to demand that homes be surrounded by useless, narrow strips of “setback” land. They still regard a house set in the middle of a property as the norm, making it difficult for progressive builders who wish to use their sites more intelligently.
It’s time our city planners began looking at courtyard houses as a better alternative to conventional, land-wasting houses. Far from being newfangled, it’s an arrangement proven for centuries.