Design Series III: Defining Spatial Expression The Courtyard

Architecture Dated:  July 20, 2016
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A modern Courtyard with a pool and seating

In the new Design series, Defining Spatial Expression, Prof. Ar. Rajini Itham Mahajan, Studio Head, VBT Consortium and HOD at Nitte School of Architecture, Bengaluru discusses various elements that define Architecture in terms of their evolution, significance- aesthetic and functional and construction possibilities. In the third of the series, we will explore a piece of the outside in the inside – THE COURTYARD as an element of spatial expression.


The courtyard is defined as an open to sky area, enclosed by built spaces. The courtyard was included as an architectural feature in ancient planning and designing philosophies. It may have emerged as a doctrine towards religious practices or in response to climatic conditions. Presently, the courtyard is regaining popularity in spatial design in an attempt to bring in a part of the open into the built environment.


Ancient texts on Architecture emphasize the importance of the courtyard as a source of positive energy and vibrations in the centre of the house. The courtyard has been a recurring motif not only in Residential Architecture world over, but in medieval churches and cloisters as well. In Indian Architecture, courtyards have been incorporated as early as Indus Valley Civilization. With time, these courtyards changed from clustered to private in nature. In Chettinad houses or the Havelis of Rajasthan, the courtyard emerged as an affirmative response to the climate. The inward looking plans of hot dry climates or use of courtyards as rain water harvesting schemes evolved accordingly.

Courtyard in ChettinadFig1. Courtyard in Chettinad                                                           Fig2. Courtyard in Havelis

The religious significance of the courtyard is further ascertained by the presence of the holy Tulsi plant in many an Indian house hold. The courtyard was also the place of activity for religious practices and gathering. 

Functional Significance

Whether the courtyard is partially or fully enclosed, the primary function of the courtyard is to provide physical and psychological comfort through natural light and ventilation. The courtyard may be surrounded by a colonnade with some of the habitable spaces directly opening into it. The courtyard could also be an extended dining space and/or entertaining zone with a swimming  pool and relaxation settings. It also provides a visual connect across the floor plan and to the upper floors or terrace above. The courtyard offers the security and privacy of indoorsm complemented by the fresh air and sunlight of the outdoors.

A Semi enclosed CourtyardFig3. A Semi enclosed Courtyard

The courtyard has been a popular element with architects as it can act as a design generator to orient spaces around it. Also, the spatial quality of the courtyard changes with different times of the day and seasons, thus inspiring designers to experiment with the temporal aspect of

Elements in a Courtyard

A modern Courtyard with a pool and seatingFig4. A modern Courtyard with a pool and seating

Any courtyard is defined primarily by its size, shape, position and orientation. The degree of the enclosure also impacts the ambience created by the courtyard. These apart, the detailing of the courtyard should be in harmony with the Architectural style adopted for the buil pergolas depending on their scale. Some large courtyards also include small to medium sized trees as softscape. Effective lighting, ambience or mood can be incorporated for dramatic effects

Courtyard with TreesFig5. Courtyard with Trees

Design Considerations

With all the given advantages of a courtyard, there are some design considerations too. Drainage is one of the primary concerns while positioning a courtyard. If the courtyard is on mother earth, drainage can be facilitated through the top soil. But if the courtyard is over a basement roof, then due protection towards additional structural loads due to earth filling, adequate water proofing and drainage solutions should be thoroughly worked out. While choosing plant material in the courtyard, appropriate study of sun and shade loving plants with respect to the orientation of the courtyard should be factored in. Insects may be another issue to be addressed either through herbal sprays or other natural methods.

Apart from the few odds discussed above, the advantages of integrating a courtyard into the spatial design far outweigh the demerits. Today, with reorientation towards active healthy life styles, green architecture and positive energy cycles, the courtyard has made a comeback in Contemporary Architecture and is here to stay. So, go ahead and enjoy a spot of sunshine along with a breath of fresh air in the comfort of your own space!

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