The Purpose of a Court Garden in Owner Built Homes and Homesteads

In this excerpt from "The Owner Built Home," Ken Kern discusses the functional and aesthetic qualities of the court garden as a design element in owner built homes and homesteads.

| May/June 1973

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    An interior court-garden space as designed by architect Ralph Twitchell in 1948.
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    A selection of home floor plans that display various ways of implementing the court-garden concept.
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    The roof garden, a creation of architect and designer Le Corbusier.

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We often think that when we have completed our study of one we know all about two, because "two" is "one and one." We forget that we have still to make a study of "and." — Eddington: The Nature of the Physical World  

As one advances from house planning to actual building, he soon discovers that the design of a house cannot be divorced from its structural purpose. The 18th century sculptor, Horatio Greenough, recommended that man-made designs, like those found in nature, should follow the function of the structure. This "form follows function" concept implies that the actual beauty of a building is relative to the degree to which it meets the demands of its function. A home with a high degree of living efficiency is almost always esthetically pleasing.

One should not, however, confuse simple, efficient house beauty with the sort of rational purism that currently passes off as modern architecture. In some quarters we find a revolt against rational materialism in favor of more poetry and imagination in designing dwellings. Architectural schools too often foster among students an academism of ascetic impoverishment which reduces the rising young architect (in Eric Gill's terms) to a "subhuman condition of intellectual irresponsibility."

The rejection of the box house with its meaningless decoration ("applied art") was first successfully achieved by the Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudi. In 1915 Gaudi independently developed a flowing sculptural, plastic quality in building that remains unique to this day. He showed that superfluous design elements can be used if quality and measure control their integration. There is apparently a need in man for things that are not strictly necessary. In prehistoric times man painted the cavern ceilings before he knew how to build roofs.

But prior to cave dwelling, man lived in the open spaces under the sun. The cave was a protective shelter rather than a place where life was carried on. Man's craving for living in the outdoors continues to be strong. Open space is superfluous to man's shelter needs, yet inner garden-courts were built in ancient Egypt and China long before houses were fully developed as protective and sheltering privacy areas. The Greek peristyle house led to the Roman atrium and the Spanish patio.

The first court-garden house was built in the 1930's in Germany by architect Mies van der Rohe. Very little was done with this architectural form until after World War II, despite its many advantages. A court-garden house offers maximum privacy and separation of living functions. Solar exposure and cross-ventilation are improved, and the fewer wall openings and shorter spans offer major structural savings. Being inward-directed, the court-garden house has few or no openings on its exterior sides.

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