The Courtyard. They seem to beckon to us to envelope ourselves in the privacy and tranquility they offer. Courtyards are universally appealing. Natural light and air. The great outdoors, indeed. It seems that courtyards have always been around. There is undeniably an aura of timelessness when one arrives at a courtyard…
A court or courtyard is an enclosed area, often an enclosed space with walls, buildings and open to the sky. Courtyards have been in use within dwellings and in residential architecture for centuries. Both in temperate climates (which these courtyards are more prevalent, as they can aid in cooling a home) as well as in harsher climates. What is interesting about courtyards is that they truly do not belong to a specific period in history.
Across the world and throughout history courtyards have been utilized with many different styles, variations and purposes. The earliest known courtyards are said to date as far back to 2000 BC in a Sumerian City of ancient origin near the Euphrates River (Southern Iraq). These courtyards were a series of 2 story buildings set around an open courtyard in the center providing areas for public congregating. Interestingly, these open areas were commonly called Atriums. (Not to be confused with the atriums we know of today that are large glass roofed and sided structures.) In 3000 BC, China and Iran embellished these open spaces in dwellings. The initial purpose of these ancient courtyards? Cooking and a large space for open fire. Before courtyards, open fires were kept burning in the central part within a home with only a small hole overhead in the ceiling to allow smoke to filter out of the dwelling. Over time, these small openings were enlarged. Eventually, the centralized open courtyard was developed.
Additional purposes of the courtyards were not only protection from the world outside, cooking, working, gardening but even the storage of animals! Who knew? The Roman courtyards often had large wells within the center of the courtyards to catch falling rain water and other water features. For the Romans, they also used their courtyards as stages where traveling singers and musicians would perform. Who knew? Chinese courtyards always had water features for the promotion of peaceful thought and serene tranquility. Britain’s history has many established courtyards during different periods. Of note, it was during the Stuart Britain period that courtyards were reserved for the wealthy, higher classes that had them constructed within their homes, rather than for the public. Of interest in the United States is the rise of the walled French Quarter courtyard in New Orleans, Louisiana. In the late eighteenth century, after two great fires, houses had new and closer alignments of deep but more narrow properties. The stunning courtyards were created with the open spaces between the buildings. Stumbling upon these courtyards as one walks through the historic streets of New Orleans is a delightful treat for the eyes. I can certainly attest to this, and below share two images from a recent visit. Oh, to sit and relish the day surrounded in the beauty and elegance of a courtyard! During the 20th century, courtyards have taken the inspiration from the past.
And what of creating the allure of these breathtaking courtyards in our own surrounds? The mere idea of incorporating some of the elements of the courtyard will certainly provide style, sophistication and elegance, but also an historical essence to your garden. No matter how large or small of an outdoor space, the elements of a courtyard can be created. Courtyards can be found anywhere. They are indeed timeless, as they have been a fixture in history for centuries.
As Mirabel Osler proclaims in The Garden Wall “No garden should be without a wall”.
Indeed, the walls of a courtyard beckon…..