The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1859] Expressing the Language of Architecture; Through Courtyards


“Fifty steps around the courtyard and all you ate would reach your feet.”

This was my grandfather telling his children to take a short walk around the courtyard of their ancestral home in Kerala. Fifty steps on the path to digestion one would say but he was among many who had discovered the many advantages of a courtyard in the house, albeit an unusual one.

The term architecture does not merely signify a profession or art, it is a life form; a true living person with a throbbing heart. It forges man’s construct and the earth’s soil in a relationship that has a tremendous bearing on our lives. Architecture has a great influence on how we perceive the aura of a particular place.

“For what culture is to humans, feeling is to architecture.”

Culture is what sets us apart from animals, it is the same with architecture; the feeling a building arouses in you makes it a good or bad piece of architecture. This sensation determines whether the building spreads a positive or negative vibe.

In this present period of recession when people yearn for something to cheer about, would row after row of concrete structures evoke any sentiment let alone a smile? The absence of character in our present day buildings is disconcerting. What; contemporary architecture has failed to do was successfully achieved to a great extent by the traditional form of architecture. The twentieth century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer aptly summed it up,

“There was a time in our past when one could walk down any street and be surrounded by harmonious buildings. Such a street wasn’t perfect…, but it was alive. The old buildings smiled, while our new buildings are faceless.”

Traditional architecture has designs and concepts that are not only time tested but also sustainable and more energy efficient than some present day ones, one example is the courtyard system. The courtyard system had its origins in India and was even found in the ruins of the ancient Harrapan and Indus Valley civilization settlements. From here it was replicated far; like China and the Middle East. Courtyards are a part of traditional architecture, but in several places in India it also took the form of vernacular architecture when it was adapted to suit the specific needs of the culture, climate and diversity of the region.

India is a melting pot of people of different creed, colour and religions; therefore a variety of influences from Islamic-Hindu to Buddhist-Jain styles can be seen in its architectural history. Sthapathyakala (‘Sthapathya’-to estabilish, ‘kala’-art) the Sanskrit for architecture was treated as both an art and science. The first written record on architecture in India; the Vaastushastra (‘Vaastu’-edifice, ‘shastra’-study of) was a culmination of a train of thoughts and ideas. It advocates the integration of science and theology and seeks to promote natural well being in people through the use of built forms. Vaastu balances man made structures with the three important elements of nature – air, water and fire (the sun). Its primary focus was on the four cardinal points: site selection, orientation, layout of the building and the importance of having a central courtyard. These central courtyards were known as Brahmastans, they consisted of a dwelling or group of dwellings in a polygonal plan enclosed on all sides by walls and having an open-to-sky courtyard or small water body in the centre.

The courtyards were an ‘energy saver’, providing a natural passive heating and cooling system through the shading effects of its walls with the added advantage of natural ventilation through gaps or holes in the enclosure walls. This restricted the use of electrical appliances to cool or heat the rooms. Thus courtyards succeed in providing a microclimate within a dwelling to increase the comfort of its inhabitants. The open courtyard also provided enough deflected natural light to seep into the inner rooms. This interplay of light, allowing both direct and subdued sunshine to fall upon the courtyard creates a moment so beautiful that it awes the viewer. Courtyards also kept prying eyes out, high walls and an additional wall just inside the main entrance completely obscured the view of anybody outside; thus maintaining privacy. One of the main advantages of a courtyard system house was that it served in weaving together the social fabric of the community as an interaction spot within the enclosed walls. This was beneficial for the women folk who in ancient India were forbidden to venture out or interact and spent most of their lives within the confines of their home. Most of the domestic architecture in India was organized around the central courtyards. Its position created a space based on a progression ranging from open to enclosed. The tropical climate of India demands air movement as well as shade for comfort, this open yet protected space became the heart and soul of the house coordinating all movement in the house with respect to itself. This system of having a central open space was in practice in almost the whole of India covering its length and breadth comprehensively.

In northern India, the desert houses of Rajasthan incorporated the courtyard system to get respite from the intense sun and cold nights; and to serve as an outdoor activity space. The brick or mud walls were made thick to provide thermal mass to keep out the persistent heat through the process of conduction and also to protect the inhabitants from sandstorms. Windows were provided high in the walls in the form of small-narrow slits or triangular openings. The courtyards here were different because they innovated one step further and designed smaller courtyards inside the main ones. The larger courtyard served as a receiving area for guests, its walls were decorated with ornate paintings and sculptures flaunting the owner’s prosperity. The inner courtyard contained the kitchen and was strictly the women’s domain and accessible only to family members. The courtyard system was not just restricted to domestic architecture, huge havelis (bungalows) and palaces too adopted this system. In such instances the courtyards were present at several floors apart from the ground floor, at the highest floor it served as an enclosed terrace. But no matter how big or small the dwelling, the scale of the courtyard was in proportion to the inhabitants and not to the building. The features of these houses are similar to those in the desert regions of the Middle East.

To the west of India, the Pols of Ahmedabad in Gujarat show the same characteristic of possessing an open courtyard. Communities lived together in houses enclosed by walls guarded by huge gates known as Pols, short for the Sanskrit word ‘pratoli’ meaning door or entrance. The population consisted of people of the same caste or profession. The houses are long and narrow and are placed back to back with narrow streets which limit natural light. The streets run dead end, and the only entrance or exit possible is through the main gate. These honeycomb like dwellings have an open space in the centre called ‘chowk’. The ‘chowk’ served as the courtyard becoming the source of light and ventilation in this hot and humid city. It contained community wells and ‘chabutaras’ which were carved wooden platforms for feeding pigeons. The ‘chabutaras’ attracted birds inside the compound as there were no trees inside due to space constraints. The Pols are an example of architectural finesse and design with richly decorated wooden carvings and stone facades. These courtyard neighborhoods were self sustaining with underground storage for food, grains and water. Besides providing security they succeeded in helping different communities to live together in harmony.

In West Bengal; to the east of India, the capital city of Kolkata; lined with eighteenth and nineteenth century homes with narrow winding lanes and alleys are a mélange of different styles of architecture. The planning of the city is haphazard and intertwining but inspite of all this there is a symmetry in this chaos that one can’t miss. The humid climate of the city propelled the need for a courtyard system housing for natural ventilation and cooling thus making the insides of the home comfortable. Courtyards are prevalent here; most of them house a temple in one corner and an anteroom in the other corner leading to the main living rooms. Small courtyards can be found at the end of a labyrinth of interconnecting alleys and lanes in a neighborhood providing one with a much needed rest and breathing space. In the traditional homes, one courtyard symbolized one family, more the number of courtyards reflected the number of families residing. The central courtyard was the focus of the house, shuttering it from heat, noise and the smells of the city. But one problem these houses faced were the seasonal monsoon onslaughts which inundated the houses, thus the concept of a roofed or cloistered courtyard came into being. The courtyards here were developed into cultural spaces and as part of the living spaces becoming an extension for household activity. They become spaces that dictated all household and group activity, differing from other places where the courtyards laid a clear demarcation between social and private spaces.

Moving to southern India, in “God’s Own Country” – Kerala the courtyard system had a makeover attributed to the difference in climatic factors for it being a coastal region. Here the nature of materials used in the courtyards changed from stone to wood. Such a house with a courtyard was known as a ‘tharavad’, and the courtyard itself was known as ‘nadumittam’. Many of the ancestral homes in Kerala are ‘tharavads’, indicating that this system had been in use since a long time. In Kerala similar to the Rajasthani homes, there were multiple courtyards inside one main large courtyard. The courtyards were divided according to their number. ‘Naalukettu’ (‘Naalu’-four, ‘kettu’-wall) referred to a courtyard with four enclosing walls; ‘Ettukettu’(‘Ettu’-eight, ‘kettu’-wall) referred to two courtyards enclosed within eight walls and ‘Pathinarukettu’ (‘Pathinaru’-sixteen, ‘kettu’-wall) meant four courtyards having sixteen enclosing walls. Since these ‘tharavads’ were not built back to back, they were quite porous to the effects of the weather. There were specific locations for prayer, storage and the kitchen inside the courtyard. They also served as a cultural space where traditional dance routines like ‘Theyyam’ were performed and where arts like the combat technique ‘Kalaripayattu’ were taught.

In the cities, single unit houses have been fast replaced by apartment blocks to cater to the influx of people migrating to the urban areas. In such a setting using every inch of land is the utmost priority, as this translates into money for the developers. Landscape architects earlier used to categorize parks and gardens as open spaces but now due to the space crunch even pavements and side walks are classified as open spaces. In such a case where land is at a premium the concept of a large open courtyard is simply not feasible both in terms of space and money. Strict building by-laws and city regulations further cut to size an already weakening concept. So the courtyard has evolved to suit itself to the needs of the city dweller while still retaining its true essence and functionality. Urban courtyards now are designed as irregularly shaped spaces instead of the regular polygonal shapes used. The fully enclosed form has given way to a semi-enclosed region with one side overlooking the apartment and the other the street. This open space in between is not hard earth but paved or grassy with a small playground or seating space to facilitate for interaction among the residents. Since city life tends to make us a fragmented society the courtyards do manage to retain their place as an interaction spot.

The most visible difference between urban and rural areas is the microclimate of the region. As density of the urban areas increases, the temperature increases thus deteriorating the microclimate. Therefore the courtyards are all the more useful in maintaining a cool temperature of the rooms overlooking it. The sky view angle; which determines the amount of direct solar radiation received by the courtyard is generally lower than that of an uncovered street. Higher the angle more is the amount of direct sunshine the block receives. If the open spaces are seen in the present day context, town/city squares, even piazzas could be clubbed in the category of a courtyard.

The pocket park is another concept having similar characteristics of a courtyard. As the name suggests these are small pockets of land; of any shape or type, free from the hustle bustle of the city. Its purpose is to create an open yet enclosed rest space and to facilitate the exchange of ideas and culture among people in a dense area. Pocket parks can be found nestled between towering office blocks or bang in the middle of a busy city road. The enclosing walls (if any) are those of the neighboring buildings or are covered with vines. Sculptures and fountains further liven up the mood of those using it. The parks therefore also help in regulating the temperature of the adjoining area with its use of water as a soothing element. Pocket parks are public courtyards of sorts, with it being also used for staging art and cultural performances. These parks also satiate a hidden desire among us. Life in the city is immersed in anonymity; we day-dream in shops, in empty buses; waiting for that chance encounter to discover our identity among this sea of people. This place fulfills that desire and permits the seated the pleasure to observe people move on with life; veiled in a cloak of anonymity.

Architecture is like a door between generations; it interconnects the past, present and the future, but passing through these doors one should not slam back the doors too tightly that we completely lose sight of the past. Leaving this figurative door ajar would allow the light of each generation to seep in to that of ensuing one. Traditional architecture is losing its prominence; before it fades out completely we should hold on to some of its bits and pieces. Just like the British actor and playwright Colley Cibber said

Old houses mended,

Cost little less than new, before they’re ended.

Likening the concept of a courtyard system to an old house, we can observe that its functionality and usability outweighs many modern concepts. This concept should be rejuvenated before it is replaced or evolved to such an extent that we lose the tradition.

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