We live in the remnants of modernist ideals – the faded towers which at some point in history exemplified the principles of post-war society such as functionality and efficiency, social progress, embracing technology, and the idealized vision of the nuclear family. Now, nearly a century after these ideas took hold, it’s become clear that these ideas and the architecture that once embodied them failed us – we as a society are more lonely and disconnected than ever before and it is literally killing us. 

So how do we, paraphrasing Marianne Williamson, “return to love?” How can architecture serve us as we find our way back to connectedness, emotional and physical health? It’s worth looking at the classical courtyard house to see the way our ancestors lived around the world. 

Brutalist tower New York

In the tapestry of architectural history, the courtyard stands as a timeless thread, weaving its way through diverse cultures and epochs. From the grandeur of Roman villas to the serene riads of Morocco, courtyard architecture has transcended its aesthetic allure to become a potential solution to modern societal challenges. In this exploration, we delve into the rich history of courtyard design, drawing examples from around the globe, and examine how this architectural approach might offer a remedy for the contemporary crises of loneliness and environmental sustainability.

Traditional interior courtyard in Tbilisi Georgia

Ancient Roots: A Global Phenomenon

Dating back to ancient Mesopotamia and extending through the annals of history, courtyards have graced the architectural blueprints of various civilizations. The Roman domus embraced the atrium, fostering connectivity and familial bonds. Islamic architecture adorned mosques with serene courtyards, creating spaces for communal reflection. Meanwhile, traditional Chinese siheyuan celebrated harmony within familial compounds.

A Panacea for Loneliness: Designing Connectivity

In the modern era, as loneliness and social isolation become growing concerns, the courtyard’s intrinsic design elements hold promise. Courtyards provide intimate spaces for social interaction, fostering a sense of community and connection. In today’s bustling urban landscapes, where technology often substitutes face-to-face communication, the courtyard beckons as an oasis of shared experiences. A contemporary take on the ancient design can incorporate community gardens, seating areas, and communal spaces, encouraging social interaction and combatting the loneliness epidemic.

Environmental Sustainability: A Natural Alliance

Beyond its social benefits, courtyard architecture aligns seamlessly with the principles of environmental sustainability. The courtyard, with its emphasis on natural light and ventilation, reduces the reliance on artificial lighting and air conditioning. The integration of greenery in courtyards not only enhances aesthetics but also contributes to urban biodiversity, mitigating the adverse effects of concrete jungles. The harmonious marriage of architecture and nature within courtyards presents a compelling case for sustainable urban development.

A courtyard tea house in Tokyo

Global Exemplars: From Alhambra to Kyoto

Numerous architectural wonders bear testament to the enduring allure of courtyards. The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, boasts exquisite Islamic courtyards adorned with intricate tilework and fountains. In Kyoto, Japan, traditional machiya homes embrace tatami courtyards, creating a seamless connection between indoors and outdoors. Closer to home, the Georgian courtyards of Tbilisi reflect a harmonious blend of functionality and aesthetic appeal.

Coliving and Courtyard Renaissance: Towards a Synergistic Future

a coliving house with an interior courtyard

As emerging housing typologies like coliving gain prominence, they draw inspiration from the age-old wisdom of courtyard architecture. Coliving spaces often integrate shared courtyards or communal gardens at their core, fostering a sense of community among residents. The modern iteration of coliving aligns seamlessly with the historical concept of courtyards, as it promotes social interaction, shared experiences, and a collective responsibility towards sustainability.

By incorporating the principles of courtyard design into coliving spaces, architects and developers are not only addressing the loneliness crisis but also contributing to a more sustainable urban future. Coliving environments with central courtyards provide residents with spaces for socializing, relaxation, and a connection with nature, fostering a sense of belonging in the heart of urban life.

Courtyard architecture transcends its historical roots to become a visionary solution to contemporary challenges. As we confront the loneliness crisis and strive for a sustainable future, the courtyard stands as a testament to the enduring wisdom of architectural traditions. With the fusion of coliving principles, we embark on a journey toward urban spaces that prioritize both social cohesion and ecological balance.