Soul of a Courtyard

On the value of reviving lost knowledge.


In March, before I left Los Angeles, my good friend Jim Kumon gave a presentation and took me on a tour of courtyard housing in the Pasadena, CA area. Courtyard housing is a type of multi-family dwelling centered around a courtyard and is a popular historic style in the Los Angeles area. As a typology it was effectively made illegal with the advent of Euclidian zoning in the 1970’s. It has only been in the last decade or so that sophisticated developers have been able to begin building these types of housing complexes again, and as with all art forms that die, reviving them can be a bit of a trick. Things that were once taken for granted have to be laboriously rediscovered and institutional knowledge is often lost for long periods of time.

One of the best modern architecture and planning firms capable of this work is Jim’s former employer Moule & Polyzoides. In fact, the principal, Stephanos Ployzoides wrote a book on the subject well worth reading if you’re interested in understanding more about the design concepts he’s rediscovered. The most recent courtyard housing project we know of is Mission Meridian Village, located at Mission station on the Gold Line. From what Jim describes there are several critical factors to consider when designing these buildings. There are some strict rules regarding proportions based on human scale, and several compelling things to consider concerning architectural details and style. However once you get past these ideas, the final product should create a shared public space for the residents that can act as an urban oasis in the middle of a busy city.

The courtyard should be defined as unsuccessful if it is not used and enjoyed by the residents. This is the prevailing problem behind Mission Meridian, pictured above on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It is all but impossible to find someone using the outdoor space for reading, talking, grilling or any other form of play. How can this be! How can we be so successful at creating the form of the historic courtyard complexes without the soul? I believe it has to do with creating a sense of belonging or ownership and the ability to participate in the space while still expressing your right to be there. If you’ll notice from the photos, the planters nearly fill the entire courtyard. While attractive, they essentially render the space useless. Also, and perhaps more importantly, at many of the units there is no way to sit with your back to your apartment. That simple tweak would allow a resident to effectively claim his unit as his own making his presence in the space acceptable to his neighbors. Notice the benches in front of each ground floor unit in the below example, located at 410 N Euclid in Pasadena, CA.
In the example below, located at 611-17 E California Ave (Pasadena, CA), notice the inviting, shaded space. It’s easy to imagine children playing on this surface under the watchful eye of their parents and neighbors. Values for these units are well into the $600/sf range while the surrounding neighborhood is valued closer to $380/sf.
In summary, without fully considering how residents can comfortably use a space (both socially and physically) even the most beautiful spaces will fall short.


1 thought on “Soul of a Courtyard”

  1. Great post Andy – I've always wished NYC have more Gramercy Park locations, a little more like London. There were quite a few complexes like this in Dubai and I've noticed they've done a great job at this in Charlotte, NC in the new downtown housing complexes (all build with beautiful parks and common space in the middle, and within the past 7 years).

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