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For alternative meanings of the word "court", see: Court (disambiguation).

A court or courtyard is an enclosed area, often a space enclosed by a building that is open to the sky. These areas in inns and public buildings were often the primary meeting places for some purposes, leading to the other meanings of court.


Historic use of courtyards

Courtyards—private open spaces surrounded by walls or buildings—have been in use in residential architecture for almost as long as people have lived in constructed dwellings. The earliest known courtyard houses were built in Iran and China and date as far back as 3000 BC. Courtyards have historically been used for many purposes including cooking, sleeping, working, playing, gardening, and even places to keep animals.

Before courtyards, open fires were kept burning in a central place within a home, with only a small hole in the ceiling overhead to allow smoke to escape. Over time, these small openings were enlarged and eventually led to the development of the centralized open courtyard we know today. Courtyard homes have been designed and built throughout the world with many variations in every century.

Courtyard homes are perhaps more prevalent in temperate climates, as an open central court can be an important aid to cooling house in warm weather. However, courtyard houses have been found in harsher climates as well for centuries. The comforts offered by a courtyard—air, light, privacy, security, and tranquility—are properties nearly universally desired in human housing.

Comparison of courtyard houses throughout the world

Ur, 2000 BC — two-story houses constructed around an open square were built of fired brick. Kitchen, working, and public spaces were located on the ground floor, with private rooms located upstairs.

The central uncovered area in a Roman domus was referred to as an atrium. Today, we generally use the term courtyard to refer to such an area, reserving the word atrium to describe a glass-covered courtyard. Roman atrium houses were built side by side along the street. They were one-story homes without windows that took in light from the entrance and from the center atrium. The hearth, which used to inhabit the center of the home, was relocated, and the Roman atrium most often contained a central pool used to collect rainwater, called an impluvium. These homes frequently incorporated a second open-air area, the garden, which would be surrounded by Greek-style colonnades, forming a peristyle. This created a colonnaded walkway around the perimeter of the courtyard, which influenced monastic structures centuries later.

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