The Stacked Courtyard

At the end of the last post and with reference to Tadao Ando’s 1973 Sumiyoshi/Azuma House, I wondered when does a courtyard become a lightwell? Or the other way around? It might be a poor question because all courtyards provide light and ventilation but we look at the Ando house and see a courtyard not a light well. Perhaps a better question would be “What makes a courtyard a Confucian courtyard?” If the courtyard is a space bordered by both sky and ground, and understood in the abstract as a space between Earth and Heaven, then another way of asking the same question is to ask how the reality of the space and the understanding of the space are connected? More to the point, how much and in what ways can the courtyard be changed yet still retain its meaning in the Confucian sense?

For example, the idea of the Confucian courtyard could be behind the 1975 Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨) by the Hong Kong Housing Authority. Their voids definitely connect ground and sky and provide a degree of light and ventilation. However, there’s no awareness of anything happening on the ground and, for that matter, not much awareness of the sky either. All that remains is the vertical link between the two, as well as the idea of it. These voids can still function as courtyards in that people can see other people on the other side but, unlike courtyards, any interaction beyond the audio-visual will need to occur in the circular corridor around the void. Only the lowest level is amenity space. With a Confucian courtyard, the awareness of the vertical link often takes place while traversing the courtyard. Amenity is secondary but if people are going to be passing through a courtyard then interaction is inevitable. Confucius would not have had much to say about voids in high-rise buildings.

The Hong Kong Housing Authority has a history of developing and testing housing prototypes but the Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate was a one-off. The return in terms of amenity value and or symbolic value must have been insufficient for the footprint of the void. However, for many years prior, the Hong Kong Housing Authority had developed variants of a tower typology sometimes known as the snowflake layout where a light-well runs through the elevator lobbies of 40-storey towers. This void has zero amenity value but an awareness of even a dim glow of daylight above would be sufficient for it to have symbolic value. The dimensions of this rectangular core are fixed by the need to access eight apartments from it and so it’s possible that the light-well is just space left over. If so, then using this surplus space as a symbolic link between sky and ground was more important than the amenity of more floor area in the elevator lobbies. Perhaps the donut-shaped lobby never went any further because the diameter of the lobby (and thus the footprint) became too large if there were more than eight dwellings per level. Eight is a lucky number in China but eight apartments could provide an ideal ratio of lobby area to building footprint.

In terms of sunlight and ventilation, the ideal width of a Chinese courtyard is three times the height of the buildings around it. I don’t know how I know this but I suspect it’s just one of those things that’s always been known. It’s the diameter to height proportion of a tulou – a Hakka courtyard house.

The author of Confucius’ Courtyard, Ruan XING, offered tulou as another example of an historic Chinese courtyard. It’s widely believed these were defensible communal houses but, as Xing points out, it doesn’t make sense in terms of defense to have your food storage buildings outside the compound. It could just be that the Hakka people lived in these communal dwellings because they wanted the proximity of the ground and sky and their entire clan as well. Regardless of the reason [and hats off to the Hakka people for inventing the social condenser in the 12th century], we recognize this space as a courtyard but, from the residential portions it’s a void that’s looked over. At ground level there’s not much space left over once communal buildings such as kitchens, bathrooms, ancestral hall and reception rooms are built. The relationship that these communal buildings have with the ground and sky is the same as for any other building. It’s only in the smaller courtyards within the enclosing courtyard that ground and sky can be experienced at the same time.

Professor Xing also mentions Ju’er Hutong Phase I, designed by Liangyong WU of Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Phase I was completed in 1990 and Phase II in 1994. At the time, the project was highly praised as it was widely believed that low-rise buildings around courtyards would be the future of high-density housing in Beijing, if not in all China. More than one paper was written. It didn’t turn out that way for various reasons but the main one is that these buildings still required too much land for the density they provided.

Phase I, shown below had four courtyards for 46 units so each courtyard is bordered by twelve apartments more or less. The smaller courtyards have one apartment on each re-entrant corner per floor but visual access to the larger courtyards is unequal as some units front both large courtyards and, judging from this plan, others front neither. Post-occupancy studies have been done, residents interviewed.

  • Some residents thought the size of even the larger courtyards was too small.
  • Rooms with windows onto the courtyard are well ventilated but other rooms less so.
  • Not much communal activity actually happens in the courtyards. Some people said this was because they were not that bright while others said it was because they were too small.
  • Residents and foreign residents in particular said they were more likely to meet other residents on the stairs.

The courtyards at Ju’er Hutong are well traversed and provide that Confucian link between Earth and Heaven but, apart from light, ventilation and access to the stairwells, they offer little in the way of amenity. People weren’t using them in the ways that Chinese people used courtyards in the past and we shouldn’t be too surprised at this. For example, it was once the case that wedding receptions were held in courtyards. Children probably played games or with uncomplicated toys … However, these courtyards fulfill the Confucian requirements no more or less successfully than the tulou communal dwellings where the space open to the ground and sky is sometimes traversed but mostly looked at from windows on the periphery. It seems sufficient and any actual amenity as a courtyard is welcome, but secondary.

The length:height ratio of the Azuma House courtyard is about 1:1 and its width:height ratio about 0.6:1. The courtyard obviously allows sufficient daylight, facilitates airflow to some extent and has the ground surface as amenity space. This courtyard is fit for purpose on these counts but can a bridged courtyard such as this still be understood as a vertical link between Earth and Heaven because when on the ground, one third of the sky is obscured and, the courtyard is more open on the upper level but one isn’t on the ground anymore? From the lower level, the bridge doesn’t seem to matter and, from tulou to donut void to modern hutong, a view of a void from its periphery seems ok.

Putting this all together could lead to high-rise high density solutions such as P&T Architects 1989 Clague Garden Estate (祈德尊新邨) with its paired towers linked by bridges at elevator lobbies every third floor.

Every 36 apartments share a communal volume internally overlooked by all stairs as well as some kitchens and bedrooms. This void could be overlooked by more windows if the access corridors were partially detached from the buildings as is now happening in contemporary Chinese high-rise residential towers.

The tie-beams with the circular holes are decorative but also manage to imply the moon gates of Chinese courtyards. I don’t think this is accidental. This virtual volume is the stacked courtyard.

As far as I know, no more estates with this configuration were built. Perhaps like the 1975 Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨) with its donut arrangement, or the courtyards of the 1990 Ju’er Hutong Phase I, land was simply too expensive to waste on a void. It’s all the same problem. I revisited my Circle House proposal for a high-rise residential tower [c.f. Defensible Space], along with some variations on this theme of a triple height elevator lobby overlooked by mainly kitchen windows.

  • The triple-height elevator lobby is taken from P&T’s Clague Garden Estate project.
  • Each elevator lobby is overlooked by 24 units, eight per floor. This is twice the number of units around the courtyards at Ju’er Hutong Phase I, but only two thirds the number accessed by each elevator lobby in Clague Garden Estate. Circle House has all kitchen windows of all units looking into the elevator lobby.
  • As with the light-well in the Hong Kong “snowflake” tower typical floor, all slab area not needed for access and circulation is removed to create voids the full height of the building.
  • The bi-directional symmetry of my proposal most likely comes from these same towers, along with the eight units per level.
  • As with the Clague Garden Estate elevator lobby and bridges (as well as the residential portion of a tulou), people pass by vertical voids open to the sky but there is no place where there is sky above one’s head.
  • As was discovered at Ju’er Hutong Phase I and, not unlike the elevator lobbies of the snowflake towers, the courtyard has become primarily a means of access. Even so, it is a shared space and a space with the potential for interaction between residents. Even when there are no people in these courtyards and lobbies, they are still spaces that can be observed (from all access stairwells and at least 24 windows).
  • As with Ju’er Hutong Phase I, each staircase is used to access two units per landing over three floors although, with my high-rise, each external stair runs the full height of the building. People on the upper of the three levels can walk down a level from the elevator lobby above. The internal staircases enable units of different sizes to be configured but this added functionality has nothing to do with the theme of this post.

From all this I conclude that the essential functions of a courtyard are and have always been illumination, ventilation and access and that enabling them in a residential tower is not counter to the Confucian notion of a courtyard encapsulating [as opposed to representing] a link between Heaven and Earth. Even if one doesn’t see the courtyard as a vertical link between Heaven and Earth, one is still left with a space that is naturally illuminated and ventilated and that, even when no one is in it, can still be visually shared and possessed by all.

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6 thoughts on “The Stacked Courtyard

  1. HCS

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Now I am thinking about another proposal where there are 4 number of apartments per floor and they have a ‘backyard’ type of balcony extending from kitchen overlooking a big central courtyard. This will provide ventilation and lighting for kitchen and toilets. Also this space can be used for drying clothes and utilities. Although I agree with your point ‘lightwells are better than a complete void when stacked’, I want to imagine an open skylight which connecting ground to sky in a high-rise building.

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks HCS,I like that idea too! There could be two sets of paired apartments, each sharing a stair and an elevator. I can see how this could work with my triple-height lobbies. In one variation I had, there was a circular atrium-like light-well in the centre of this lobby. This was okay when there were only two elevators but it was an obstruction when there were four. I’m imagining a variation on this project. As always, access becomes the issue. nullThere’s also this configuration which is quite common in India, I believe. This was in the post How Other Folks Live. This might be something to explore here.

  2. HCS

    From my observation, the circle house proposal is more suited for public buildings. Since it is an high-rise residential proposal I don’t see why people want to use the intermediate large access spaces. I think most people will prefer to go directly to the ground floor through a lift without using the stairs.

    It would be better to think of an high rise building with an open space provided in ground floor as a meeting place or children’s play area and to have big visually connected balconies that gives a sense of a village. (or in other words to think this proposal inside out).

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      thanks HCS! I wasn’t suggesting people use the four external stairs to get to the ground level as there are four elevators for that. There’s one each side of that central lobby space. They’re not in a line or two-to-as-side as you’d expect.(FLW did a similar thing with the elevators in his plan for the 1956 Price Tower.) This project was all about the daily coming and going of people from their apartments in the morning when they get leave at various times and in the evenings when they get back. It’s more about daily necessary interaction and not about weekend optional interaction.Maybe I should have drawn the elevators more clearly.

      1. Alia

        I kind of like the idea. You can always keep an eye on all the food delivery guys coming and going.

      2. Graham McKay Post author

        Yes – in China at least, this is how courtyards now function!

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