Mid-century modern courtyards


This post has recently been updated and can be found here:

The Room Without a Ceiling | Courtyards in Modernist Design


This post was inspired in part by two articles that I have read on-line recently.

The first was by Secret Design Studio “Grand Designs Australia 60’s style Brighton House benchmarked against the 10 forgotten lessons of mid-century modern design” where a featured house on Grand Designs Australia was assessed on how it lived up to its ’60s Style’ label. Secret Design Studio is a Melbourne based building and design consultant who champions the cause of mid-century modern design. I would encourage anyone with an interest in modernist design to visit their website, blog, pinterest, Facebook page or follow on Twitter as they are all a great source of inspiration and information! www.sectretdesignstudio.com

The article referenced another post “10 Forgotten Lessons of Mid-Century Modern Design” where an analysis of what makes mid-century modern architecture great is provided.

As a landscape architect I love the aspects of modernist architecture that allows the house to embrace and co-exist with the garden around it. These are elements that are evident in the ’10 Forgotten Lessons’ and in particular Lesson 4: ‘Connecting the inside to the outside creates harmony with the site’.

What is one feature of a house that can instantly achieve this?

The courtyard.

A courtyard is a private area within or next to the house and can provide a number of functions. The Boyd House II courtyard is the central feature of the house and while providing a break between the separated parent’s and children’s wings it is also the main private outdoor space.

Boyd House II - Central Courtyard (Robin Boyd Flickr)
Boyd House II – Central Courtyard (Robin Boyd Flickr)

Other courtyards are smaller and their main function is aesthetic. They allow light into central areas of a house and use vegetation to soften the built forms of the interior.

Mid-century modern light court in Kew – http://www.modernistaustralia.com

The floor to ceiling windows of mid-century modern architecture allow connection between indoor living rooms and outdoor entertaining areas. The courtyard below is viewed across a living room, letting light into the room. Plantings help to soften and provide a green backdrop to the solid built form of the house.

Living Room & Courtyard – Surrey Hills Victoria (www.thehomepage.com.au)

Very small and private courtyards outside bathrooms again let in light, but also give a feeling of being outside while showering!

Bathroom light court – Ferntree Gully, Victoria (www.modernistaustralia.com)

The hallway in this mid-century modern home in Canterbury, Victoria has planted light courts to either side, providing light, greenery and maybe even the impression of a bridge.

Courtyards to either side of internal hallway – Canterbury, Victoria (www.jelliscraig.com.au)

A number of my favorite modernist homes feature a courtyard immediately behind the entry hall. The privacy that is provided by the front door opens up to a light filled internal space.  Windows to all sides allow views into and across the courtyard from a number of rooms.

Courtyard and entry – Brighton, Victoria (www.hodges.com.au)

The materials used in mid-century modern courtyards typically reflect those of the building.  The use of natural, unadorned materials projects authenticity by clearly expressing their structural purpose and form.  These materials were the passion of Australian landscape designer Ellis Stones, who was an expert at laying natural rockwork and paving.  The idea of simple, undecorated design was also promoted by Robin Boyd, as he spoke out against ‘featurism’ in his popular publication The Australian Ugliness (1960).

Private front yard – Balwyn, Victoria (www.thehomepage.com.au)

A common element of mid-century modern architecture is that it is about designing a building that works in conjunction with its surrounding landscape.  Each of the courtyards shown here are clearly part of the architects overall design and not just added as a garden afterthought.

Beaumaris Home (www.realestate.com.au)

By designing a house with consideration of courtyards, whether they are internal or external, it provides interest to the form of the building, increases opportunities for natural light into more rooms and maintains a direct connection between the exterior and interior of a home.

‘Milne House’ by Robin Boyd – Toorak, Victoria (www.secretdesignstudio.com)

The plan for Robin Boyd’s Baker House (1964) shows how the courtyard was even the starting point for the architect’s design, being the central feature and with a symmetrical building around it.

Plan of Robin Boyd’s Baker House (www.boydbakerhouse.com.au)
Robin Boyd’s Baker House Courtyard (www.wikipedia.org)

Boyd used similar features in his design of the McClune House (1969).

Robin Boyd’s McClune House internal courtyard (www.boydhomesgroup.blogspot.com.au)

Possibly my favorite Australian mid-century modern house is by Roy Grounds, in Toorak.  The geometry of the home is perfect, with a square around a central circle courtyard.  Windows to the perimeter of the courtyard allow light to stream into all areas of the home while retaining privacy.  Planting of tall, narrow bamboo within the space softens the built forms without taking up space or blocking light.  Again, simple and natural materials are used in the pavement.

View of courtyard – Roy Grounds House, Toorak Victoria (Iconic Australian Houses)

While searches for images of this house provide stunning photos of the internal features, the best photos of the courtyard can be found in Karen McCartney’s 50/60/70 Iconic Australian Houses (2007).  The Roy Grounds house is worthy of further investigation for all of its wonderful design aspects.  More information can be found on the Roy Grounds House here: www.architecture.com.au

View of courtyard from inside Roy Grounds House, Toorak Victoria (Iconic Australian Houses)

In today’s architecture the courtyard appears to have been replaced by the ‘al-fresco’, an undercover outdoor entertaining area.  Mid-century modern courtyard examples show how these outdoor spaces add aesthetic and functional value to a home and going back to the Lost Lessons, they do in fact ‘connect the inside to the outside and create harmony with the site’.


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