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The Elevated Courtyard

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In China it’s not just in Beijing where courtyard housing is being demolished because its density is relatively low compared to what’s needed. Even the three-storey high stacked courtyards of the 1990 Ju’er Hutong Phases I & II couldn’t deliver the density required thirty years ago without shrinking the size of the courtyard.

If the ideal Confucian courtyard has

1. A depth to width ratio of 1:3,
2. is bounded by the ground and the sky, and
3. is understood as a vertical link between Earth and Heaven

then, before deciding that courtyards and high densities are incompatible if not contradictory, we need to think about whether there’s any other way to configure something that functions as a Confucian courtyard. In my last post I proposed stacking triple-height elevator lobbies pierced vertically by multiple openings and with multiple stairwells open horizontally. The problem wasn’t whether the cube-shaped elevator lobbies could be regarded as physically between the ground and the sky for they most certainly were. If we’re going to walk on it then we clearly think of a concrete slab 30-stories up as as good as ground. The problem is Heaven. Approaching the problem of configuring a high-rise Confucian courtyard as either a defense lawyer might, I want to know if it’s possible to find a loophole in any of the above three conditions?

The first condition seems pretty watertight at first but, judging by the 45° shadow in the below section of Ando’s Row House in Sumiyoshi, the courtyard has a depth to length ratio of about 1.2:1 but the upper level has one closer to 1:1.5. The upper slab would need to be at about the height of the balustrades for it to be as much as 1:2.5. Just in passing, imagine how much brighter the living room and kitchen downstairs would be if those balustrades weren’t so pointlessly more solid than they need to be?

Please don’t mention Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows”. It was published in Japan in 1933, two years after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria when Japanese cultural exceptionalism was very much on the rise. It has to be read with that in mind.

I digress. What I was getting at is that perhaps only the proportions of the opening need be 1:3? Perhaps we can interpret the courtyard as a space that links what’s above and limitless (which it did anyway), with what’s below and not necessarily at a depth of one-third the width? In other words, if a courtyard doesn’t have a ceiling to link it with the sky and all it implies then why should it need a floor to link it with the ground and all it implies?

If we grant an indeterminate distance to the sky then why not to the ground as well?

The effect of a James Turrel rooflight comes from it having an apparent depth of zero. The opening is viewed from below yet still understood as a symbolic link between Heaven and Earth. It’s very much about above and below. The problem is that we perceive it as a hole in a ceiling and not as a courtyard.

Live Oak Friends Meeting House, Houston, Texas, 2000. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 1 episode, Spirituality, 2001. © Art21, Inc. 2001.

The city of Budapest has a tradition of courtyard housing. The plan below shows units on the top and right sides lit only be windows opening onto the courtyard yet Budapest courtyards are regarded as courtyards and not as light wells despite them having a depth to length ratio of 1:1.2 or less, and a height to width ratio of, going by this plan and elevation, 1.5:1. As with a Turrell rooflight, the sky is a distinct rectangle above. An awareness of the sky above just might be sufficient, especially when we don’t walk around looking straight up. It might work.

Umeda Sky Gardens in Osaka is two towers bridged by a platform with an oculus and, to an observer on the ground, appears as just that because too much of the sky around it can be seen at the same tine. Oculi work better when there’s no sky to be seen elsewhere. For a few seconds before one leaves the escalator to enter the observation deck, the oculus becomes an elevated courtyard allowing access but, once inside the observation deck, the emphasis shifts away from the internal view and towards the surrounding one.

Then there’s Arquitectonica’s The Gate mixed-use project in Abu Dhabi. It has two oculi and the units around them have a new kind of view consisting of up, down and across the “sky courtyard”. Given the relatively small diameter of the oculi and knowing the extent that privacy is valued in the Middle East, the views across will be of the same residence. Those two units with the oculi have what definitely looks like a bottomless courtyard with a depth to width ratio of about 1:2. There’s definitely sky above and ground below except the ground is now some distance below the base of the glass walls of these courtyards that, apart from bringing some more light into the units, have no amenity value.

Although interesting in itself, this configuration isn’t very useful because, from the actual ground, the courtyards just appear as holes in the sky bridge that doesn’t take up that much sky. Our perception of this building wouldn’t be much different if the oculi weren’t there. If we want the oculus courtyard to be perceived as a Confucian courtyard then, for a little while at least, it has to be the only sky visible. The oculus of Umeda Sky Gardens does this, but only for a few seconds. The problem is how to block out the rest of the sky.

No problem for this next scheme proposed for Mexico City. It’s a pyramid-shaped and sized hole in the ground with terraced sides. Terraced buildings are always a good way of making sure everyone has access to a piece of the sky but the problem is that terraces leaning against each other on flat land creates a void in the centre that is difficult to fill. Inverting the pyramid makes that void suddenly precious as a source of daylight. It doesn’t feel right to call this void an elevated courtyard but for most people it definitely will be. It’s curious that the courtyard walls become steeper with depth when you’d expect the opposite to happen if daylight were the driver. If the project was infinitely deep then the walls would become parallel and you’d have one very ordinary but very big light well – a stacked courtyard.

The disadvantage of building an inverted pyramid underground is that no daylight comes from the outer side and so getting what daylight there is, to illuminate those very deep floor plates is a problem. An above-ground, hollow pyramid wouldn’t have this problem but, because it is working against gravity and not with it, the structure would probably be prohibitively costly for an equivalent floor area. But even that makes more sense than Soleri’s Arcosanti elevated pyramid mashup.

Not entirely unlike the above project, the access corridors in Walden 7 are on the inner side as the building widens but shift to the outer side of the building as it steps in towards the sky openings. The view of the sky through those openings isn’t seen against the surrounding sky unless, like in the fourth photograph below, you’re standing next to one of the large “windows” and looking straight up. It’s both elevated courtyard and oculus.

Four weeks ago I didn’t know the idea of a Confucian courtyard even existed but, since then, I’ve scanned my meatspace database for buildings and proposals that might incidentally fulfill the conditions for one. The only proposal left to mention is this 2017 proposal of mine for an Extruded Mat City. It’s a mashup between a Hong Kong Housing Authority residential tower and Villa Savoye with the residents up above. Although I haven’t worried about showing it, everything else happens either on or near the ground, or on the rooftop.

I calculated the population density at 1,152 persons per hectare, which means that four residential levels around the elevated courtyards could house the population of Manila at twice its current density. (Calculations like this scare me.)

Conclusion: If courtyards are no longer places for children to play, holding wedding ceremonies or for the elderly to linger, then we might as well get them up and out of the way where they can still provide daylight, ventilation and a connection between sky and earth as they always did and the ground they once occupied can be put to better use.

The above proposal is far from perfect. For one, it seems to imply concrete construction at a time when concrete construction is maybe not the answer that it used to be. I doubt it could be downscaled and made of mud brick but it might be worth investigating. Also, I’m not so keen now on elevator lobbies separated from the outside.Moreover, better use needs to be made of the support structures. All they’re good for right now is small retail at ground level and office space on the levels above. If all this ground level space blessed with an elevated courtyard is being made available then it needs to be made better use of. It’s not the total solution but perhaps some variation of my Circle House proposal could act as the supports and provide top and bottom portions with a unified and open core. I don’t know. One for the future.

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