We have seen in recent residential projects the need for bringing the outdoors inside, whether it's through green walls, biophilic designs, or interior courtyards, especially in countries with dry and hot climates. When it comes to countries of the Arab world, creating these outdoor-inspired inner spaces is a lot more than just bringing in some sunlight and fresh air, it is an architectural expression of a rich culture that transcended generations and inspired nations beyond their borders. In this article, we will explore how cultural and social norms influenced the creation of traditional courtyard houses in Arabian countries and how their unique architectural features were reimagined in modern contexts.
It is believed that courtyard houses first appeared at the beginning of the third millennium in “Bilad al Sham”, the land which includes the countries between the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates. Syrian and Iraqi nomads inaugurated the architectural layout when they set up their tents around a central feature in the desert to provide protection for their cattle. Shortly after, courtyards became an essential feature of Arab and Islamic architecture, highlighting the need of an enclosed-yet-open area in residential architecture.
In addition to climatic factors, social and cultural factors were highly influential to their creation. Arabian countries, regardless of their religion or place of origin, highly value close-knit families and familial obligations and gatherings. Many countries prioritize families along with faith, making it a critical determining factor of personal status, honor, and dignity. This is why families often reside in large premises, making room for numerous offspring and extended family members. Privacy is also a huge influence on the internal and external organization and appearance of traditional courtyard houses. In addition to it being and important factor and one of the core distinctive value of Islam, families refrained from boasting about their financial status in public, creating an architectural contrast of the exterior and interior.
It is important to note that not all Arabian countries have identical courtyard house typologies, some use different ornamentation techniques, some different landscaping, and others a completely different layout. The majority of traditional courtyard houses include:
- A Basement Floor
- A ground floor which includes the main living areas (called Al Salamlek)
- A first floor which includes the private areas (called Al Haramlek)
In extreme weather conditions during summer or winter, basement floors often act as thermal moderators, making it an inviting living space for the residents. Wind-catchers collect the hot air and cool it before being released to the courtyard. In addition to it serving as a seasonal recreational space, it also serves as storage, since families of that region have a lot of siblings and offspring, and keep in reserve large amounts of food supplies in case of unexpected wars.
Upon entering the house through a narrow corridor, visitors experience a spatial contrast as they transition from an unornamented and modest architecture into a highly-decorated courtyard with greenery, a central water fountain, and elevation carvings. The more ornamented and grand the house is, the wealthier the family is. Exterior doors are often bi-fold wooden panels with lead and steel reinforcement plates. From the outside, houses are often left unornamented to represent modesty and security, avoiding judgement or attention from passersby. The interior, however, is a highly ornamented space with intricate geometric patterns and detailing on the balustrades, furniture, tiling, and window corniches. Landscaping is also an important feature of traditional courtyard houses. Residents drape the interior walls with climbing jasmine and rose bushes, and scatter orange or lemon trees around the peripheries of the courtyard. In terms of functions and facilities, the ground floor includes the kitchen, bathrooms, and reception areas.
In the northern side of the courtyard, where the cool breeze is abundant during the summer, residents enjoy a covered recreational space called the Iwan. Visually, the Iwan offers residents the same features as the open courtyard but unlike the latter, Iwans sit on an elevated platform and are surrounded by walls on three facades. In the opposite direction, a grand Main Hall is constructed to host visitors during celebrations. In most houses, the main hall is often the most decorated space in the entire house and is covered with a dome. To highlight these two spaces, flooring patterns from the courtyard leading to the Iwan and Main Hall are arranged to look like an oriental carpet.
Residents access the first floor from the courtyard through a wooden or stone staircase. The spatial division of the first floor depends on the size of families residing in the house. In case the structure houses extended families, small apartment-like chambers are built. For smaller families, regular private bedrooms are built. Several houses include terraces on the first floor to benefit from a private open space during the summer.
The Musharrabiya, also known as Mashrabiya, comes from the Arabic word “Sharab” which translates to “drink”, due to the fact that the Musharrabiya referred to a cool, shaded place where one can drink water from a clay pot. Others believe that the word was derived from “Mashrafiya” which translates to “an observation place”, which is why it was often associated to a small protruding wooden balcony in houses. It is a perforated screen made of wood, clay, or stone, that regulates light, heat, ventilation, and humidity, and creates a space of privacy that's not too obscure.
Traditional courtyard houses have two types of windows: external and internal ones. As previously stated, exterior facades are rarely ornamented to avoid attention from pedestrians, which is why external windows are plain, small, and located on the first floor. On the other hand, interior windows are larger in scale and highly decorated, and are enclosed with wooden louvres.
Cabinets are carved into the walls of the main reception halls for both display and storage purposes. Open cabinets are used to display wooden carving ornaments, whereas closed cabinets are used for everyday-storage items.
Ceilings are rarely overlooked when it comes to the interior design of traditional courtyard houses. They are often highly decorated wooden panels with symmetrical gold-plated motifs of calligraphy, florals, animals, or geometric patterns. The same motifs are used for doors, window louvres, flooring, and wall patterns.
What these houses were built with and how their structural shape looked like relied on available local materials. The majority of houses, especially in Syria, were built with stone, and were organized in a unique layering technique called Al-Ablaq. Ablaq is an architectural technique excessively used in Syria, that alternates between rows of light and dark stone. Other materials included wood (ceiling panels, windows, and doors) and marble (flooring).
The architectural typology of courtyard houses and its beneficial characteristics has transcended cultures and generations and found its way back into contemporary residential layouts. In today’s congested urban fabric, these spaces bring many advantages to a design such as increased natural light and improved ventilation conditions, while providing occupants with direct access to the outside and to nature.