Courtyard Houses Then and Now

Holding Court

A well executed courtyard makes a house memorable as well as more livable. The strong indoor-outdoor connection is a powerful lure but also the geometry of the space, its openings and wall surfaces, and paving materials play important roles. One of the most alluring courtyard houses that I can

think of is the home designed for silent film director Fred Niblo in Beverly Hills of 1927 by Wallace Neff (photo courtesy Propertypal). The dramatic curve of that entry court clearly celebrates automobiles and a theatrical sense of arrival by

literally sweeping them around to the front door (image courtesy Stefanos Polyzoides of Moule Polyzoides Architects). The rest of the house falls into place around it like a perfectly drilled chorus line. The design is a silent movie in its own right — see  how the oval hall between living and dining rooms echoes the motorcourt, a Mini Me echo of the main event. At a house in California’s Central Valley from the early 1980s architect William Turnbull

deftly turned the veranda outside-in and opened up the roof at the same time

– so that the wood-framed courtyard becomes a grand open-air hall at the center between two wings – almost like a small piazza shaded against the summer heat. (photo courtesy Open Buildings). But a smaller home on a

tighter lot can also boast a central courtyard, as this Eichler tract house by architect Claude Oakland from our Signature Collections shows (Plan 470-6).

Architect Gregory La Vardera has reinterpreted that atrium design for today, as shown above (Plan 431-11).

At a lecture recently I met Jawed Umerani, a talented structural engineer who very graciously gave me a tour of his wonderful new courtyard home, which was designed by Apple Stores architects Bohlin Cywinksi Jackson. Of course

Jawed, whose firm Umerani Associates  is a frequent consultant for the Bohlin firm, did the engineering and contributed much to the design. It shows how to fit an exciting light-filled, outdoor-oriented, one story house onto a tight suburban

lot. From the street, it’s impossible to tell what lies ahead — you see the garage, a ribbon of walkway leading to a sheltered entry. That remarkable stone-paved

outdoor room awaits just beyond the front door, on the other side of a small sitting area. The elegant U-shaped house puts the bedrooms on one side and the

great room on the other. Light floods in from all sides. The Umeranis treated me to breakfast and it was hard for me to sit still because the center of the house became the center of my attention — another film about to start.

5 responses to “Courtyard Houses Then and Now

  1. Dan, I love the connection you make between courtyard houses and Hollywood theatrics. The courtyard’s origins in California–going back to the Spanish colonial days–were absolutely about entertainment (think fandangos in the hacienda courtyard). Greene & Greene revived the typology in 1903 for Arturo Bandini, and I’m guessing that Bohlin et. al. were familiar with it, given the Jawed Umerani house’s U-plan and expressed-rafter, overhanging eaves. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson may even be Charles and Henry Greene reincarnated (OK my math is off), so sensitive have they been to expressing natural materials and space harmonics. And they are, in my view, at their sublime best with these smaller commissions.

    • Thanks so much, Ted — I should have mentioned the Polyzoides Courtyard Housing book. I remember the marvelous Bandini house — I I hadn’t thought about the connection with the expressed structure and materials…exactly! And think Wurster was channeling Bandini in some way when he did his early U- and L-shaped ranch houses, though with a major dash of Monterey revival thrown in…

  2. Hi Dan, Speaking of Courtyard Houses, you should check out the house by Roy Grounds for him and his wife in 1952-3 in Toorak in Melbourne – Perfect square plan with high level windows on the external face, with a circular internal courtyard.
    Look at:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Grounds_House

    http://asculptureforliving.blogspot.com.au/2007/02/courtyard-houses-1-grounds-hill-st.html

    http://thedesignfiles.net/2012/02/melbourne-home-georgia-danos/

    Regards
    Matt

  3. Hi Dan, very good job and good comments too, This types of buildings should be studied more in depth as you have done, congratulations.

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