Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


There is something rather magical about secret courtyards and hidden gardens. These escapist spaces are romantic and engaging, especially when applied to the private world of the home. For centuries, courtyard houses have been a staple of certain strands of architecture and design around the world, particularly across Asia and the Middle East. They are a common motif within the traditional residences of countries like China and Japan and are also seen widely within Arabic architecture. The riads of Morocco and Tunisia are arranged around their central gardens and look inwards, while turning their backs upon the world outside. Such urban sanctuaries retain a powerful charm of their own.

Integrated courtyards and atriums were also a staple of classical Roman and Greek architecture and made a return during the Renassiance and the neo-classical era. Yet somewhere along the way we fell out of love with the whole idea of courtyard houses. With increasing pressure to maximize budgets and make the most of every square metre of living space, courtyard houses slipped into obscurity in the West were largely dismissed as old-fashioned and indulgent.

But courtyard living is, once again, making a come back and for very good reasons beyond romance and delight. Contemporary architects and designers are being seduced by the many advantages of integrated courtyards, weaving them into modern designs in both town and country. They offer a private oasis at the heart of the home that introduces light and air to the living spaces that surround it, as well as forging an intimate relationship between inside and out, with connections to planting within the courtyard and views of the sky.

Courtyards serve as sheltered and secure outdoor rooms that double as summer living spaces, dining zones, playrooms and inviting areas for entertaining.More than this, contemporary courtyard houses over welcome solutions to many of the key problems that tend to arise during the design and build of new urban homes, particularly when it comes to the issues of privacy and light.

Roger and Lizzy Stewart, who work in the legal profession, embraced the idea of a courtyard house when they commissioned a new house in Battersea. The family had outgrown their previous home and needed five bedrooms and a generous amount of living space, yet their site came with a number of planning and height restrictions required to preserve the privacy of neighbouring houses. The solution was to tuck the new house – designed by architects De Matos Ryan – into its garden setting and arrange the building around a sunken courtyard. The open plan living areas on the lower storey flow out onto this generous hidden space, complete with planting and an outdoor kitchen.

‘We really like the idea that this is a secret house that no-one else knows about,’ say the Stewarts. ‘The lower ground floor is like this wonderful apartment with its own garden and outside space. It feels very quiet and peaceful and in the summer it doubles the size of our downstairs space – we eat outside, read our newspapers out there and treat it as an additional living area.’

‘I love how the courtyard seems to hold the city at arm’s length,’ says architect Angus Morrough-Ryan, who treated the courtyard as his starting point for the whole design process. ‘When you descend into the courtyard the city seems to disappear both visually and acoustically. There is this sense of well-being and somewhere uncluttered.’

Architect Deborah Saunt, of DSDHA, had been looking for a site to build a family home with her husband and colleague David Hills for many years. She too found herself with height restrictions upon a challenging site, which used to be an orchard, lost between the back gardens of the nearby terraces. The result was the ‘Covert House’: a two storey home, shared with the architects’ two children, which is woven into the land and bordered by fresh trees and new planting.

Here, it’s the bedrooms and a media room that are situated on a sunken lower level, topped by a glass fronted pavilion holding the main living spaces. Two modest but vital courtyards introduce natural light and transform spaces that could feel subterranean into welcoming retreats. Saunt used mirror glass on the outer walls of the courtyards to increase the sense of space and light, as well as reflecting the planting within these micro-gardens. 

‘The house is intended as a case study for unlocking backland sites,’ says Saunt, ‘and the two courtyards play a very important role in its story. The intimacy of the courtyard by the bedrooms is a particular delight for us: an exterior room with this purposeful ambiguity that means it’s a hybrid or transitional space that blurs the boundary between indoors and out and brings this tranquil space into daily life. Leaving the door to the courtyard open on a summer day is a special pleasure, hearing the birds and no traffic noise at all.’

London property developer Sean Quinn commissioned not just one courtyard house, but two. He found a site on the leafy Coombe Estate in Kingston occupied by a 1960s chalet-style building in a large garden. Quinn commissioned architect Terry Pawson to designs two substantial new houses here, one for himself and his family and the second for the market, which has since been sold. Both are substantial six bedroomed houses but sit in a conservation area where only two storeys of living space would normally be allowed. Pawson created an additional lower ground level and arranged each house around a large sunken courtyard, with swimming pools, lounges and gyms opening out onto this secret space, planted with a mature silver birch tree.

‘We knew that we were going to have to create a lower ground floor but we wanted natural light to reach down into it and we really didn’t want it to feel like a basement space,’ says Quinn. ‘The larger we made this courtyard in the planning stage then the more successful the design became. The fulcrum of our house is very much the courtyard.’

The courtyard helps connect the different levels and spaces of the house together, making the home a more social setting. The same is true of the reinvention of a 1960s house in Highgate that is now home to director Rob Sanders, his wife Jemima and their two daughters. The family were drawn to the single storey home, in a quite cul-de-sac, by the central courtyard. They commissioned architect Luke Zuber to update the house, making the most of the connections between the courtyard and the surrounding spaces, as well as adding a modest lower level.

‘The courtyard was THE element that we fell in love with,’ says Jemima Sanders. ‘We had been looking for a house for nearly two years and as soon as we walked into the courtyard we knew that we had to have it. Luke recognised the brilliance of the design and managed to expand it while staying true to the original idea. When it’s warm the courtyard really does become part of the living space: we eat, sleep, work on our laptops and lounge out there regularly. Even when the sliding glass doors between inside and out are shut it still gives the house a great feeling of spaciousness. It’s interesting that on first visiting the house people are always drawn out into the courtyard – it is irresistible.’

Within more complex and built up urban settings, courtyards can also be used to help act as a buffer zone between the city and the more intimate parts of the home. This was very much the case with a two storey family home in Greenbank Park in Singapore, designed by Hyla Architects. The house sits on a tight city site, with a noisy expressway not far away. A central courtyard, planted with a verdant garden, is used to not only introduce nature, but to help ‘insulate’ the bedrooms from the rumble of the urban traffic outside.

‘It also allows the bedrooms to enjoy light and ventilation without looking onto neighbouring buildings,’ says architect Han Loke Kwang. ‘On the ground floor, the courtyard has a water feature pond with a frangipani tree so it becomes a visual centre piece for the whole house and I like the way it relates to almost every room and space, especial;y the stairs and circulation areas.’

In the town of Bethesda, in Maryland, architect David Jameson faced similar problems with nearby traffic noise, with his family home situated on a busy street corner. The Jigsaw House, which was originally commissioned by a client but then bought by the architect himself, is arranged around a central courtyard complete with planting, seating and an outdoor fireplace.

‘It is an active, organic space that feels totally different at different times of day,’ says Jameson. ‘You can feel the changing weather even when you are inside. It was about carving away at the interior and creating this outdoor room at the heart of it and having a feeling of implosion rather than focusing the house outward to the street beyond.’

Yet contemporary courtyard houses are not simply an urban phenomenon. Architect Wallace Cunningham designed The Crescent House by the coast at Encintas in California arranged around a courtyard and a crescent shaped swimming pool. The courtyard here also serves many different functions, offering a sheltered retreat away from the breezes that sometime sweep along the coast and a semi-shaded setting for the pool itself. It also plays a pivotal role within the circulation of the building and the processional entrance to the main living spaces, which sit within an elevated bridge spanning the courtyard and looking out to the ocean.

‘it works so beautifully,’ says Cunningham. ‘The owners of the house are also big entertainers so if they have functions then they will use the courtyard and terrace as a reception room. It creates this sense of space that makes the house seem much bigger than it really is. I always try to use integrated courtyards where I can as they do give you this enchanted space, rather like Persian gardens or Japanese courtyard houses. It’s about leaving one world and entering another and the courtyard becomes this transitional space between them.’

Within compound houses, too, where the house is divided into a number of different component parts, courtyards can offer key moments of transition, as well as valuable outdoor rooms. Architect Thomas Bercy of Bercy Chen Studio designed a striking semi-rural home on the green edges of Austin, Texas, that is divided into two distinct sections – housing the main living spaces and the bedrooms – with a courtyard or ‘canyon’ between them. For owners Chris Brown, a lawyer and writer, and his partner Agustina Rodriguez, the canyon is a key moment that connects with the swimming pool nearby and nature, while providing a space for entertaining and relaxing.

‘We live in a warm climate so we can enjoy ourselves outside for most of the year, mosquitoes permitting,’ says Brown. ‘We use the canyon as an outdoor living room and as our open-air hallway. It has the practical effect of compelling us to step outside throughout the course of the day and I love the way it obliterates the illusory distinction between wild nature and human habitat. It is an essential aspect of what we wanted to achieve.’

Australian architect Andrea Moore also re-interpreted the courtyard concept in a rural home for her parents within an eleven acre property near Gippsland in Victoria. A small heritage house here, around 100 years old, was dramatically extended with a major modern new addition wrapped around a new courtyard. The original building contains the bedrooms and a winter lounge, with all the primary living spaces contained within the new extension.

‘They wanted the best of both worlds: the old homestead meets the new addition,’ says Moore. ‘The courtyard evolved for a number of reasons: cross ventilation, blurring the boundary of the interior and exterior, allowing the winter sun to penetrate the interior and dictating the flow of the interior spaces. It is primarily a connecting space and all the windows around the courtyard slide open, which allows the house to open up in many different configurations depending on the weather and the time of day.’

For contemporary architects like Moore, the courtyard represents an alluring component for homes that seeks to connect with nature and forge a close alliance between indoor and outdoor space. At the same time, interior designers are also looking again at period courtyard homes and seeing fresh potential and allure. In Marrakech, French designer Romain Michel-Ménière has transformed a period riad on the edge of the medina into a welcoming combination of old and new for Philomena Merckoll and her family. The house is an extraordinary escape from the bustling city beyond, arranged around a hidden garden planted with orange trees.

‘The indoor-outdoor experience is what defines living at Riad Mena,’ say Merckoll. ‘To be in the tree-filled courtyard enjoying the sunshine during the day, the sky at night and having the fresh air in the middle of your home is a unique and blissful experience.’


De Matos Ryan –
Terry Pawson –
Zuber Architecture –
Hyla Architects –
David Jameson –
Wallace Cunningham –
Bercy Chen Studio –
Andrea Moore –
Riad Mena –
Romain Michel-Ménière –