Courtyard Chronicles


Courtyard Chronicles


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Often viewed as a luxury, particularly in densely populated Hong Kong, courtyards offer more than an opportunity to indulge in a private space of one’s own. These versatile pockets of space present a variety of uses that make living infinitely more enjoyable, from allowing indoor-outdoor living and shielding its residents from urban chaos, to making multigenerational living possible.

In a new design volume, Courtyard Living: Contemporary Houses in the Asia-Pacific, published by Thames & Hudson, design journalist Charmaine Chan visits 25 of the region’s most stunning courtyard homes, located in Singapore, Australia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines, and more. Structured by courtyard function, the book is comprised of five chapters – on privacy, multigenerational living; sightlines; light and ventilation; and living with nature.

Here, CatchOn sits down with the author for a chat.


What sparked the concept of Courtyard Living?

I wanted to build a contemporary courtyard house in Sydney, Australia, but had difficulty finding books that would help me convey to my architect what I wanted in a home. I found plenty of academic writing and books on Chinese quadrangle houses, Moroccan riads, Spanish colonial houses, and the like, but nothing that really helped me. I decided to do the research for myself. The more I discovered, the more I was convinced that I should write a book specifically on contemporary courtyard houses that catered to 21st-century lifestyles.

How did you discover, and select, the homes featured in the book?

I trawled the Internet; architects told me about other architects; and sometimes, if I knew of architects whose portfolios included lots of courtyard houses, I contacted them directly to ask if they were working on any interesting projects. Luck also played a part: I was at Sri Lankan architect C. Anjalendran’s courtyard house, in Colombo, when Thisara Thanapathy, a two-time winner of the Geoffrey Bawa Award for Excellence in Architecture, turned up. I interviewed him on the spot and was taken that evening to House by the Lake, a courtyard house Thanapathy had recently designed. It is now one of 25 houses featured in my book. 

Which homes stood out to you, and what did you love about them? 

Off the top of my head, if I had to name a couple, they would be: AW House (Jakarta, Indonesia), by Andra Matin. I love that movement around the house has been choreographed to take place around the courtyard. Also memorable is that Matin made every floor feel like the ground floor. And House by the Lake (Colombo, Sri Lanka), by Thisara Thanapathy. More than most, this courtyard house calmed the mind. Removing distractions (by restricting views of neighbouring buildings) helped create a meditative space, enhanced by a large courtyard pool. Reflective bodies of water, often found at memorials and sanctuaries, metaphorically embody absence.

How do you envision you would make use of your own courtyard home?

My courtyard house is designed to enable different generations to live separately, but also together, under the same roof. Increasingly, the old are having to look after the very old, and I wanted to future-proof my home for that eventuality. 

Any memorable moments from the making of Courtyard Living?

One courtyard house I didn’t include in my book, but which makes me smile when I think of it, was a lavish “biophilic” home in Malaysia, designed by architect Ken Yeang for Malaysian royalty. Instead of being introduced as a journalist (which could have been problematic), I was presented as one of his own, which is why, on greeting the monarch, I immediately pointed to his furniture and mumbled something like, “I love your chairs!” (Frank Gehry’s Wiggle Chair was among his extensive collection of classic designer chairs.) Sadly, I wasn’t able to ask much about his courtyard house. 

What’s your personal definition of a well-designed home?

At the very least, a house should provide protection and privacy, which courtyard houses offer in spades. A well-designed home should also facilitate wellness, with comfort at its core. Natural lighting and ventilation, which courtyards introduce to surrounding rooms, help. 

Charmaine Chan is South China Morning Post Design Editor and author of Courtyard Living: Contemporary Houses of the Asia-Pacific (Thames & Hudson), available in booksellers and on Amazon.


Virginia Ngai

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