Elements of Blakstad: Courtyards

Deep down in the world of architectural definitions is a concept called transitional space. Each of us encounter and interact with these spaces every day, both in the personal and the public. They are the areas in our lives that take us from one realm to another. Hallways, verandas, staircases, vestibules, lobbies, tunnels, highways and waiting rooms are just a few examples of transitional space. The in-between or liminal spaces in architecture can be regarded as close relations to the same concepts in psychology, philosophy, sociology and theology. There’s scope to go down the rabbit hole of architectural theoretical discourse but let’s stick to the wonderful act of designing and living with transitional spaces for the simple fact that they can be beautiful. Case in point is the courtyard.

Courtyards feature strongly in the work of Blakstad Design Consultants as solutions to real problems of access, light, security and privacy. No doubt these are the reasons why humans first developed the courtyard back in 6400 BCE in Sha’ar HaGolan in the Jordan Valley. In some cultures, it is thought that the courtyard evolved from the small ceiling holes used to let out smoke from the cooking fire and in others from the nomadic habit of leaving a common space inside a circle of tents.

Over time these spaces became bigger and bigger until daily life became purposely designed around an interior, centralised courtyard. Each era and civilisation bestowed its own style on the courtyard with the Romans leaving a centre cistern to catch rainwater, the Greeks with their colonnades and open hearths, the communal courtyards of the ancient Chinese with the requisite water feature, and the Islamic civilisations with their multipurpose spaces and ingenious irrigation methods. The art in architecture is the ability to turn functionality into beauty and the courtyard is one of the most obvious examples.

Even in Ibiza’s history, the inner courtyard has a long and ancient trajectory. Islanders of old utilised their inner courtyards for almost everything from workshop and storage units to animal shelters and late afternoon suntraps to catch up on gossip while embroidering or shelling beans. The courtyard was a spatial opportunity for an assortment of activities as opposed to being built for a singular specific purpose. These days the Ibiza courtyard has less to do with the practicalities of daily life and more to do with leisure and pleasure, as well as providing natural light and air flow to interior rooms. These are private sanctuaries where the interior life of the house can spill over into the transitional space, thereby amplifying the uses of both.

Classically, a traditional portal de feixa would open to a rectangular space paved with coarse hand cut stone. The space might be left spare or include an enclosure for pigs or hens to one side and perhaps a drying loft to the other depending on the design of the farmhouse. Most often a drinking trough for donkeys would be cut into the wall and wooden chairs with hand woven esparto seats would be moved around to follow the sun.

These days the courtyard can take any iteration. Sleek and contemporary with polished stone and glass walls looking inwards. Provençale style circled with terracotta pots and a canopy of wisteria. Moorish wood screens surrounding a tiled floor and blossoming orange trees. Frequently a Blakstad courtyard includes a water feature as did many of the ancient examples of this architectural component. You can read more about this design element here.

In urban locales, the courtyard offers a space-saving alternative to the garden, allowing a connection to nature that would otherwise be lost amongst the concrete jungle of cityscapes. In rural areas, these spaces offer respite from the sun and provide a sense of separation between work and rest. Both options reflect the transitional, letting the physical and the emotional realms move between physiological states. And beyond the theoretical, the courtyard exists as an architectural moment of beauty where one can sit, breathe and take a moment to be outside of the frenzy of modern life. A flash of intimacy with the self and the surrounding environment, the courtyard invites inhabitants to a moment of rejuvenation.

Open, bright and airy, not to mention welcoming to a potted garden, the courtyard holds space for the very human experience of self-reflection and connection. It’s a space designed for peace. It brings nature closer to daily life and blurs the boundaries between built and unbuilt spaces. The courtyard is one of the areas where the architect’s work can help people experience positive emotion.