5 June 2011


110605 SanMarco
Piazza San Marco After a Rain / Doug Joyce

What is there about a courtyard that creates a dynamic condition beyond just providing for the functional requirements of the building or buildings that surround it?

Courtyards provide for natural light and ventilation within the center of a building. They provide a controlled outdoor space for activities within the confines of a building structure. There is so much functional goodness to a courtyard that It's hard to make a bad one, although certainly that is possible.

I'm speaking of something else though, and that is the quality of 'movement' through and inherent life in these kinds of places. A dynamic character that can only be fully described by being in such a space. Characteristics of a well designed courtyards are permeability, good natural lighting (the right amount, and enough to filter into the right places).  There should be plenty of places for views in and out, and for human beings to pass through. If this is done right, the layers of light, then shadow, and back to light, delight the eye, drawing attention through the foreground to something in the distance, and always pull and compel a visitor to move through the space.  

The grandest of courtyards, a piazza, is the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy.  It is a space of the greatest dynamic quality. In the several ways to approach this space, there is always a movement about it, due to the tension about the space created by the various shapes that dorm the square.

Several quick things come to mind about the Square:

  • The counterpoint of the campanile to the expansiveness of the courtyard
  • Walking about the perimeter, there is always something around the corner, in all the passageways feeding into the square.  Some of them have great vistas, like the view out over the Grand Canal.
  • The tension of the trapezoidal shape of the Square
  • The scale of the buildings around the Square
  • The people and living cretures that occupy it are attracted to it, and contribute to the movement

I saw John Ronan speak at the AIA convention in New Orleans, and he spoke of being 'drawn through a garden’ regarding his Poetry Foundation building in Chicago.  I appreciated his choice of words about his project, because that is exactly what I felt upon looking at the picture he used to illustrate his project.  The experience contains a series of events experience as you make your way through the building's outer shell, through a series of modulated spaces, and into a place that prepares the visitor to experience poetry after being amongst the hustle and bustle of a busy urban street.

Screen shot 2011-06-04 at 5.55.49 PM
www.jracrh.com / The Poetry Foundation / click the image for Ronan’s talk

Courtyards certainly have a lot of functional characteristics; what may even be more important is the value they have in the way they give their inhabitants a feeling of well being.

What is there about spaces around objects that convey movement? Without trying to make an explanation, I can give a quote from Christopher Alexanders' 'The Nature of Life, Book One, The Phenomenon of Life'

"In a few cases, life in a thing, or in a person, or in an action, or in a building, reaches the level of intensity which is truly remarkable. This can happen in a work of art, or in a person's life, or in a moment of the day." 1

The courtyard, designed well to meet it's functional purposes, and designed to come alive and to move people (in both the literal and figurative senses), is critical component to making proper semi public and semi private spaces.  These spaces make the difference in making an exceptional urban environment.

1  Christopher Alexander, Page 47 'The Nature of Life, Book One, The Phenomenon of Life', Part 1, Chapter 1, 'The Phenomenon of Life', 2002, The Center For Environmental Structure

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