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A court or courtyard is an enclosed area, often a space enclosed by a building that is open to the sky. These areas in inns and public buildings were often the primary meeting places for some purposes, leading to the other meanings of court.

Historic use of courtyards

Courtyards—private open spaces surrounded by walls or buildings—have been in use in residential architecture for almost as long as man has lived in constructed dwellings. The earliest known courtyard houses were built in India and China and date as far back as 3000 BC. Courtyards have historically been used for many purposes including cooking, sleeping, working, playing, gardening, and even places to keep animals. Before courtyards, open fires were kept burning in a central place within a home, with only a small hole in the ceiling overhead to allow smoke to escape. Over time, these small openings were enlarged and eventually led to the development of the centralized open courtyard we know today. Courtyard homes have been designed and built throughout the world with many variations in every century.

Courtyard homes are perhaps more prevalent in temperate climates, as an open central court can be an important aid to cooling house in warm weather. However, courtyard houses have been found in harsher climates as well for centuries. The comforts offered by a courtyard—air, light, privacy, security, and tranquility—are properties nearly universally desired in human housing.

Comparison of courtyard houses throughout the world

Ur, 2000 BC — two-story houses constructed around an open square were built of fired brick. Kitchen, working, and public spaces were located on the ground floor, with private rooms located upstairs.

The central uncovered area in a Roman domus was referred to as an atrium. Today, we generally use the term courtyard to refer to such an area, reserving the word atrium to describe a glass-covered courtyard. Roman atrium houses were built side by side along the street. They were one-story homes without windows that took in light from the entrance and from the center atrium. The hearth, which used to inhabit the center of the home, was relocated, and the Roman atrium most often contained a central pool used to collect rainwater, called an impluvium. These homes frequently incorporated a second open-air area, the garden, which would be surrounded by Greek-style colonnades, forming a peristyle. This created a colonnaded walkway around the perimeter of the courtyard, which influenced monastic structures centuries later.

Courtyard houses in the Middle East reflect the nomadic influences of the region. Instead of officially designating rooms for cooking, sleeping, etc., these activities were relocated throughout the year as appropriate to accommodate the changes in temperature and the location of the sun. Often the flat rooftops of these structures were used for sleeping in warm weather. In some Islamic cultures, private courtyards provide the only outdoor space for women to relax unobserved.

The traditional Chinese courtyard house is an arrangement of several individual houses around a square. Each house belongs to a different family member, and additional houses are created behind this arrangement to accommodate additional family members as needed. The Chinese courtyard is a place of privacy and tranquility, almost always incorporating a garden and water feature. In some cases, houses are constructed with multiple courtyards that increase in privacy as they recede from the street. Strangers would be received in the outermost courtyard, with the innermost ones being reserved for close friends and family members.

The medieval European farmhouse embodies what we think of today as one of the most archetypal examples of a courtyard house—four buildings arranged around a square courtyard with a steep roof covered by thatch. The central courtyard was used for working, gathering, and sometimes keeping small livestock. An elevated walkway frequently ran around two or three sides of the courtyards in the houses.

Relevance to the architecture of today

More and more, architects are investigating ways that courtyards can play a role in the development of today’s homes and cities. In densely populated areas, a courtyard in a home can provide privacy for a family, a break from the frantic pace of everyday life, and a safe place for children to play. With space at a premium, architects are experimenting with courtyards as a way to provide outdoor space for small communities of people at a time. A courtyard surrounded by 12 houses, for example, would provide a shared park-like space for those families, who could take pride in ownership of the space. Though this might sound like a modern-day solution to an inner city problem, the grouping of houses around a shared courtyard was common practice among the Incas as far back as the 13th century BC.

In San Francisco, the floor plans of "marina style" houses often include a central patio, a miniature version of an open courtyard, sometimes covered with glass or a translucent material. Central patios provide natural light to common areas and space for potted outdoor plants.