It is no small irony that this survey of courtyard homes in the Asia Pacific region by Charmaine Chan, design editor of the South China Morning Post, has no inclusions from Hong Kong. For such a property-minded city where space is generally designated in vertical terms, one of Chinese architecture’s most traditional elements has become a near-inconceivable luxury.
Chan opens her gambit by defining a courtyard as “a social device [that] identifies a communal space” and elsewhere as an open-air space “integral to the buildings that surround them”. From there, she turns to the architects themselves, whose definitions are as colorfully diverse as their work. Valentino Audrito (of the architecture firm Word of Mouth) calls a courtyard “an open-air space defined by its boundaries” (in the case of her Chameleon House, built for an expat family in Bali, the boundaries are walls, screens and vegetation). Architect Sacha Cotture departs from Chan’s initial sense of inclusion, making his Parañaque House in Metro Manila a buffer from the outside world because “the neighbourhood is not that attractive”.
Perhaps the most “Chinese” design among the 25 residences featured here is Taiwanese architect Tze-Chun Wei’s sleekly modern Courtyard House, built for three generations of Wei’s own family atop his father’s hosiery factory in Changhua. The least—though this might stir debate—is Audrito’s open-air Chameleon House, where any residual Chinese flavor has been well-filtered through such diverse courtyard influences as Balinese natah and Italian cortile.
Amid lavish illustrations (and architectural plans courtesy of the architects themselves) Chan devotes her prose partly to physical descriptions of each project but more regularly to the thoughts and inspirations behind it. Structurally, the book unfolds in five chapters defined by function, with five examples of each devoted to maintaining privacy, multigenerational living, sightlines connecting different parts of the house, light and ventilation, and accentuating natural surroundings.
Culturally and geographically, Chan’s examples loosely follow her own life and career path, as she briefly recounts, from Malaysia to Australia and points between. As a critic, she remains keenly analytical while never forgetting what inspired her about the subject in the first place—a trait she clearly shares with the architects themselves, one of whom she quotes as saying wryly that a courtyard house gave him control over everything he sees: “his architecture in the foreground, his landscape in the middle, and his architecture at the back.”
The fact that several of these houses were designed and built as homes for the architects themselves speaks wonders.