Long live the urban courtyard!
Like the revival of salsa music, martinis and Art Deco, central cities as desirable and popular places to live have taken the nation by surprise. Cities like Seattle, that began a decline in the 40s or 50s, are seeing their populations grow again. Except for some scattered buildable lots here and there, condominiums and apartment houses are behind all this growth. After all, few big cities have much developable land left.
Condos and apartment houses add to the tax base, but if you like cities and appreciate their offerings, you have to retain some interest in single-family dwellings. The best option for density-rich family homes is the townhouse. Attached to one another and typically placed close to the street, townhomes often allow for a modest space in back for outdoor enjoyment – the courtyard.
For our purposes, a courtyard is defined as a space within or adjacent to a dwelling that is confined by walls or fences in order to create privacy, intimacy and beauty. An atrium is a courtyard entirely surrounded by a dwelling. Yards – perhaps most characteristic of suburbia – are on large lots, with extensive space on all sides. A courtyard should not be confused with a veranda, deck, terrace or porch, which are attachments to the house and usually yield to a yard.
For its part, the townhouse is an ancient style: Before cars – even before horses as a means of conventional locomotion – people lived next to each other. That allowed commerce to take place readily within a walking distance of "home."
Wealthy Romans employed an atrium, an internal space, to provide relief from street noise and prying neighbors. The Spanish, with Moorish as well as Roman experience, formed patios, where water features and at least a few plants allowed a quiet retreat. Old urban quarters of Latin America today boast this style and there are no more appreciative connoisseurs of it than expatriate Norte Americanos. Various forms of courtyards are found, too, in Northern Europe, from Vienna to Copenhagen.
A courtyard in Willemstad, Curacao. Photo: Phil Comeau
In the United States, you find town houses with courtyards in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina — the old cities that pre-date the automobile. Lately though, courtyards (and patios, atria, etc.) have found prestige in new construction too. Enough to land a recent major spread in the Wall Street Journal by Alyssa Abkowitz (subscription required).
Seattle zoning (as in other cities) long obstructed development of urban courtyards by requiring buildings to have large setbacks from the street. Since the rise of suburbia as an ideal, setback restrictions in American cities have rendered courtyard architecture an expensive add-on, if not an impossibility. The law was changed in 2011 by the City Council, but practical applications have been slow to catch up.
In addition to privacy, the Journal notes, courtyards offer a way to bring natural light into the house itself (through windows onto the courtyard). "The rising popularity of the courtyard is tied to the growing desire for indoor/outdoor transitional living," writes Abkowitz.
From experience reorganizing a small backyard into an outdoor "room" behind our own house, I can tell you that adding walls and/or fences to frame a space also gives it a new aesthetic dimension. Instead of eyesight bleeding off indiscriminately, one's attention is shaped by the limits imposed by the courtyard. Accordingly, the courtyard confers a sense of trust, contentment, intimacy. It is the world — your world — reduced to manageable space.
Some urban backyards in Seattle, like ours, are already being retrofitted. Many more single family townhouses, though, can include more efficient private spaces if the front yard is removed.
So far, most developers aren't biting. There are few examples of new infill houses or larger developments that take advantage of the new zoning’s flexibility to make traditional interior spaces of courtyards, atria and patios. Instead, we are getting endless condo and apartment developments that sport nothing more than tiny balconies. These projects create density without improving the livability of cities very much.
A few architects, such as David Neiman, are creating common courtyards connecting several small houses.
A David Neiman-designed space in the central district that connects several single-family homes with an outdoor courtyard. Photo: David Neiman
Opportunities for new single residence townhouses, however, are still unexplored. For diversity density, but also for more privacy and more charm, developers should bring back housing with courtyards.