Case Study: Eichler Landscaping - the Atrium & Courtyard

This is a continuation of a previous blog, where I wrote about landscape ideas for an Eichler home in Marin. Last time, we focused on the front. And now, on to the courtyard!
One the most important exterior parts of many mid-century modern house is the courtyard space. Not every home has a courtyard, of course, and some have atriums, which is generally an indoor space.

Wiki had this to say about courtyards:
"Courtyards—private open spaces surrounded by walls or buildings — have been in use in residential architecture for almost as long as people have lived in constructed dwellings.

The central uncovered area in a Roman domus was referred to as an atrium. Today, we generally use the term courtyard to refer to such an area, reserving the word atrium to describe a glass-covered courtyard.

The comforts offered by a courtyard—air, light, privacy, security, and tranquility—are properties nearly universally desired in human housing."

For designers of mid-century homes, one of the philosphies that stands out most is the integration of interior and exterior spaces. The courtyard, or atrium is a natural point of integration.

The Courtyard

This "blending" of interior and exterior spaces is one of the hallmarks of a "modern" home, and comes from the building styles of Japanese homes and gardens. No surprise that many of the early practioners of the modern style were influenced by Japanese architecture. Ancient screens became sliding glass doors; bold rectilinear patterns were refabricated with contemporary materials. Glass walls created true transparancy in architecture. And while Philip Johnson's seminal "Glass House" holds up as an iconic piece of architecture and a touchstone of a period, it doesn't address the everday lives most of us have in the"real" world - a need for privacy. Enter the courtyard.

A courtyard has so many functions. In this example, it is the foyer to the house. You pass through the courtyard to arrive at the front door. For the homeowner, it can be another room for entertaining, enlarging the footprint of the house substaintially. A more esoteric use would be a "viewing garden", also like many gardens in Japanese home design. Realistically, today, landscapes are mostly experienced as one drives by, or up to a home and we walk through it on our way to the inside. The landscape is more often viewed from inside than actually used as a room, or place to be. And there is great value in that. When we look up from our tasks - washing dishes, putting clothes away, sweeping the floor - there is our "moment", right outside the window, for us to place ourselves, even momentarily in our mind.

The courtyard can become a composition, a painting - if you will - that brings us joy, quiet, and a connection to the natural world. In real terms, it combines the natural world and the built environment to create a special sanctum. Plants and materials become elements in the composition that create an idyllic spot, calming our minds, inviting us into the realm of it's beauty - the same way a great painting will draw us into it's world.

One of the most important aspects of the courtyard is the sense of security. In today's world we forget that there are coyotes, mountain lions, snakes and other creatures to fend off. Wild animals are "somewhere else", not in the regular world. Without saying it, a courtyard is a safe place to be outside. It becomes a refuge from the world but still of the world. It is dramatically different than the architecture of "inside". In a way, it is both outside and inside, and this synergy is its strength.
The most important element in any courtyard is water, the most primitive need of humans. Interior courtyards have been around since architecture began, and typically have a well, spring or cistern at its center. Animals of all kinds - humans included - are attracted to its sound on a visceral level.

eichler courtyard water feature

Courtyard with water feature

In the existing courtyard, there is no water, and I think the design calls for it. It need not be in the true center, but should be an important part of the composition. Since the courtyard is walled, the sound of water will be amplified, welcoming guests and residents alike, as they hear it from the other side of the wall.

Even though I love the rich red color of the bricks that were laid as the original floor (as well as the repetition of rectangular forms similar to the wall), the real goal should be to "blur" the line between indoor and outdoor. For this reason, I suggest that the courtyard floor should be identical material as the interior floor, in this case a nice gray concrete. For this study, I placed expansion joints (which are necessary) in a rectilinear pattern to repeat the forms on the wall. By making the floor concrete, the window walls and sliding glass doors are simple planes that minimally seperate one space from another. If you blur your vision, they become one and the same - with no seperation.

eichler courtyard case study
Courtyard with floor that is similar to interior, and evergreen vine on fence for privacy
The exterior (the landscape) becomes equal to the interior (the architecture). This was a very big talking point for the mid-century modernists: the equality of spaces, and consequentially, the equality of the professions. Architecture and landscape architecture became equal. The landscape was no longer the icing on the architect's cake, the ornamentation for the object. The two became on. And it was the courtyard where this idea manifested itself most visibly.

In addition to changing the floor of the courtyard, I also recommend an evergreen vine - such as star jasmine - that will gather on top of the fence to provide a little extra privacy from the neighbor's windows. And for the planting, repeating the same plant - in this case, Lily of the Nile - for the sake of simplicity. In smaller spaces, limiting the palette of plants and materials creates a simpler statement, and stronger design.

Robert Leeper is a guest blogger on landscape design for Marin & San Francisco Modern.   He is the founder of Robert Leeper Designs, a landscape design firm established in Austin Texas which recently expanded to Marin County, California.    Contact Robert at 415-322-9254 or visit him online at Robert Leeper Designs.


#1 By linda smith at 7/18/2019 3:57 AM

Very interesting content and very supportive pictorials.

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