Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page PRE-WEB ARCHIVES:
No. 28, Spring/Summer 1989
Desert Architecture

The Courtyard House

By Corky Poster

"...the courtyard house emerged as both an urban and rural prototype. Its key characteristic, however, is not its context but rather that it represents a fundamentally different conception of space from the Nor them European house form. In the courtyard house, outdoor space is captured and included in the residential volume and ultimately becomes the heart of its morphology. This is an arid region concept that serves its climate well."

Human settlement patterns have always been closely intertwined with the fundamental economic activities that they support. Thus in the prehistoric period when human beings were nourished by a hunter-gatherer economic system, the form of human settlement was appropriate to that economy: an arms-length migratory pattern aimed at establishing territories large enough to support a family or tribal grouping with the naturally occurring food supply. The less plentiful the food supply, the larger the territory needed to be. The pattern was migratory, moving with the growth seasons and the animal herds, and the house form corresponded to those needs. It was mobile, light, simple, and protective.

A fundamental change in the economic system--the advent of the agricultural revolution, wherein early humans discovered that they could intervene in the reproductive cycle of edible plants and thus control and manage their food supply--brought a corresponding change to the human settlement pattern. No longer was an arms-length, migratory pattern desirable. Instead, a more sedentary, more permanent form emerged. As agriculture developed further, human groupings were able to produce a surplus of food, and from this single fact grew division of labor and ultimately towns and cities.

courtyard house roofs Thumbnail link to image of courtyard house roofs, ~28K file.

These changes occurred most rapidly in very specialized climatological areas. The first urban agricultural centers emerged in areas blessed with benign and year-round growing seasons combined with the ready availability of rivers for irrigation purposes. Major permanent concentrated populations arose, for example, in the Tigris/Euphrates region of ancient Mesopotamia, the desert coast of Peru at Chan-Chan, the Thar Desert crossed by the Indus River in what is now India, and Egypt of the Nile. In all these arid-region urbanized agricultural centers, the courtyard house emerged as the basic house form. Today, throughout the arid regions of the world, the courtyard house remains a sensible, satisfactory, and preferred solution.

Schoenauer, in his informative book 6,000 Years of Housing, Volume 2, The Oriental Urban House, carefully documents the wide range of courtyard house solutions that emerged in such cities as Ur, Monenjo-Daro, Kahun, and Athens, which formed the essential prototype that spread ultimately from the Spain of the Moors on the west to the valley of the Yellow River on the east (1). With Columbus' voyages from Spain to the new world, the house form continued further west and joined and reinforced the indigenous form that had emerged independently five hundred years earlier, from Chaco Canyon in today's New Mexico to the desert coast of contemporary Peru and Chile.

Architectural drawings thumbnail link
Thumbnail link to unit and section drawings, ~21K file.

It should be noted that the courtyard house emerged as both an urban and rural prototype. Its key characteristic, however, is not its context but rather that it represents a fundamentally different conception of space from the Northern European house form. In the courtyard house, outdoor space is captured and included in the residential volume and ultimately becomes the heart of its morphology. This is an arid region concept that serves its climate well. In contrast to this, the Northern European prototype uses the house form to distinguish between indoor space and outdoor space and is fundamentally conceived as excluding and protecting the inhabitants from the often cruel and unforgiving climate. Thus a house or a building becomes an object in a field of outdoor space or a figure on a background. Probably the best example of this approach is a North American suburban home: a 40 x 40 ft object sitting in the midst of a 60 x 100 ft lot. The house self protectively turns in on itself. It represents a compact enclosure of what is indoors; everything else is outdoors. The courtyard house has a fundamentally different view of the relationship of indoor space to outdoor space. In the patio or court yard home, the house itself is an interlocking combination of indoor and outdoor spaces that together make up the house. More importantly, the character and scale of the outdoor space is not significantly different than that of the indoor space. In a sense, the house is made up of a variety of rooms, some with roofs and others without. The patios or courtyards are simply rooms without roofs.

child in courtyard
Thumbnail link to image of child playing in courtyard, ~28K file.

Courtyard houses provide an ideal prototype for desert communities. In the colder periods of the year the courtyard, if properly oriented, provides a source of sun at the heart of the house, not at its perimeter. By maximizing the number of habitable rooms that face the courtyard, the major portion of the house is afforded an adjacent sunny outdoor space. Even in the desert communities where nighttime winter temperatures reach freezing, the daytime temperatures are sufficiently moderate that this courtyard can become an active and usable living space. It provides a safe outdoor play area for young children and a safe outdoor sitting area for adults and the elderly. In the hot season of the year, the courtyard can serve the same purposes in the morning and evening and, while often hot in the sunny areas during the day, the walls provide a portion of shade on at least some part of the courtyard throughout the day. Overhead shading in the summer can be achieved through deciduous vines and trees or light partial coverings, for example, cloth, palm fronds, or open-weave mats. Courtyard housing has the additional attributes of providing easy and natural privacy, allowing for increased densities without negatively affecting the quality of life, and forming a limited oasis microclimate that can moderate climatic extremes and provide a manageable green space appropriate to limited water resources.

Courtyard housing has economic implications in that it can produce better desert housing with significant cost savings. In the underdeveloped desert regions, the lack of availability of wood or steel products makes it difficult to develop spaces with a structural span of more than 3 m. By making the courtyard the large "room" of the house, one can provide a larger space without the material cost associated with that structural span. Thus a low-cost house could have a central courtyard "room" of 6 m without the associated cost.

This same spatial attitude that creates courtyard houses extends to courtyard cities as well. Urban space, principally streets and plazas, maintains the same relationship to urban buildings and blocks that courtyards have to the rooms of the house, that is, approximately the same size and proportion. Thus outdoor space in a courtyard city is not conceived as an open rambling park but instead is viewed as a contained space with a specific length, width, and height. In the same way that a house is viewed as an interlocking composite of indoor and outdoor space (rooms and patios), the city itself is conceived of as an interlocking composite of indoor and outdoor space on the next larger scale (blocks of buildings and streets and plazas). By the clarity of its edge definition and its scale and proportion, streets and plazas become clearly defined urban spaces that maintain a human scale.

What this spatial attitude ultimately requires, of course, is a relatively high-density, low-rise urban form: low-rise in order to freely integrate outdoor space into built space and high-density to properly define outdoor space at a human scale. Outdoor space, by its proximity to indoor space, gets intensive use and consequently earns the right to be designed with the same care as indoor space. The courtyard city becomes a honeycomb of carefully designed indoor and outdoor spaces, with a range in scale from the smallest private patio to the largest public space to accommodate the size and variety of human groupings and activities.

A comparison of densities is interesting. Although we tend to associate only high-rise construction with high densities, a more careful study reveals that not to be the case. In the Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City), Le Corbusier recommends structures of 15 stories and projects a density of 1,000 persons per hectare (2). In the Organization of American States publication Normas Minimas de Urbanizacion y Servicios Publicos (Minimum Standards of Urban Design and Public Services), the Colombian architect German Samper Gnecco develops a low-rise, high-density prototype that also reaches a density of 1,000 persons per hectare but at one and two stories only (3). Peter Land, in his publication Economic Garden Houses, High-Density Development, develops a vast array of inventive low-rise, high-density schemes, each with extensive private outdoor patio space, which reach densities of up to 600 persons per hectare (4). These results are achieved at only one to two stories with auto parking adjacent to each unit.

Latin America, which is closest in history and climate to the arid regions of the Sonoran Desert, has been developing some new and interesting examples of courtyard houses brought into the twentieth century. A few examples of the most recent and exciting work and research follow.

PREVI (Proyecto Experimental de Vivienda)-- Lima, Peru

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Between 1965 and 1975 the United Nations, in cooperation with the Government of Peru, built an experimental housing community based on the concept of low-rise, high-density development with courtyard houses. The site was on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, in the center of Peru's coastal desert. An international competition was held requesting submissions for housing and developmental schemes, under the direction of architect Peter Land, United Nations project manager. Ultimately 13 projects from Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, India, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and 13 projects from Peru were selected. Twenty of each design were built in addition to a community center, a kindergarten, and a school. The successful project provides a clear look at new communities based on the low-rise, high-density courtyard house concept combined with the most advanced ideas in low-cost building materials and construction methods.

Chinchorro Housing--Arica, Chile

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In the northernmost region of Chile, up against its border with Peru, sits the city of Arica. Situated on the Pacific Ocean in the midst of the coastal Atacama Desert, Arica has a negligible annual rainfall. In the late 1950s the Chilean firm of Bresciani, Valdez, Castillo, and Huidobro designed and developed Poblacion Chinchorro, a community for workers of high-density, low-rise courtyard houses.

German Samper Gnecco, INSCREDIAL, Revisita Escala, and Rogelio Salmona--Colombia

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Colombia, at the northwest comer of the South American continent, is now intensely involved in the development of low-rise, high-density development. With the leadership of German Samper, the architect whose work represented Colombia at the PREVI development discussed above, INSCREDIAL (the public housing agency), Revista Escala (an architecture and urbanism journal published in Bogota, Colombia), and the architect Rogelio Salmona, great strides have been made in developing the appropriate model for high-density, low-rise development in Latin America.

Tucson Community Development/Design Center (Centro de Arquitectura para La Comunidad)

Vivendas plan drawing Thumbnail link to plan drawing, ~33K file.

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Tucson, Arizona, is an American city that lies on the eastern edge of the Sonoran desert. Its history too is Latin American. From 1540 to 1811 Tucson was a Spanish colony, and from 1821 to 1850 it was part of Mexico. The Tucson Community Development/Design Center is a community-based, non-profit architectural planning and development firm. Its work is specifically aimed at solving the needs of low-income people. Between 1973 and 1983 the Design Center completed a series of projects of courtyard houses based on the low-rise, high-density principle. The Menlo Demonstration Project is an inner-city courtyard housing project for low-income families, the elderly, and the handicapped; 11-Mile Corner is a housing cooperative of farm workers; Viviendas Asistenciales is an apartment project for the low-income elderly and handicapped in Tucson, Arizona, and Santa Cruz Village is a similar project in Eloy, Arizona. All four projects are based on the principles of a high-density, low-rise courtyard approach to desert housing.


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  1. Schoenauer, N. 1981. 6,000 years of housing. Volume 2. The oriental urban house. Garland STPM Press, New York and London. [Back to text]
  2. Le Corbusier. 1933. The radiant city. The Orion Press, New York. [Back to text]
  3. Servicio Interamericano de Información Sobre Desarollo Urbane. 1974. Normas Mínimas de Urbanización y Servicios Públicos. Organización de los Estados Americanos. Bogota, Colombia. [Back to text]
  4. Land, P. 1977. Economic garden houses: High density development. Volumes I and 2. College of Architecture, Planning and Design. Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. [Back to text]

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Author Information

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Corky Poster is an associate professor in the UA College of Architecture who is also in private practice. He specializes in housing and community design.

Credits and copyright information

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