Chiara Del Core 24 apr 2019 Articles 0 comments

The patio: continuum between indoor and outdoor environment

From the Roman domus to the house with a contemporary patio

The typology of the house with patio originated in Roman times with the Domus Pompeiana. This is the matrix that has generated countless variations of house with patio over the years. It is in this period, in fact, that the homes of the wealthiest people are usually built, according to a predetermined model, capable of ensuring a greater level of privacy within the urbanized context. This housing model was characterized by a volume of two floors above ground, few openings on the facade, a rectangular plan and two entrances, one main and one secondary. The rooms were distributed around a central space called the atrium which constituted the public access area to the house and housed in the center a basin, the impluvium, where rainwater entering the compluvium, a specific roof opening converged. Next to it stood the tablinum, a hall in which the landlord welcomed those who went to visit him. Following, there was the perisitlium, porch with adjoining internal garden, which overlooked the study, the hall for important occasions, the bedrooms, the dining room and the space reserved for prayer.

Peristyle of a Roman domus in Pompei

With the passage of time and the changing of the socio-economic structure, the Roman domus will undergo some progressive changes that will determine the emergence of diversified conformations depending on the specific time and place. Despite this, some recurring characters will allow to recognize in the following versions, the original scheme. The first novelty is characterized by the volumetric increase inside the central space, determined by the need to obtain new habitable environments while keeping the entrances unchanged. In a second moment, there will be a progressive development in height of the building for the same reasons. The third innovative factor concerns the insertion of commercial premises along the passage side: this element will inevitably change the front of the domus. The historical events of the late antique period are decisive for the development and change of housing patterns widespread in the Middle Eastern and Western areas respectively. However, although the place and needs change considerably, the model of the Roman domus remains in the articulation of the residences.

In Arab culture for example, the typical home is equipped with one or more patios with generous dimensions where the most important activities take place. All the rooms overlook this space which in the center houses a basin of water and constitutes the beating heart of the house. Even today it is possible to admire the fabulous riads structured in this way. In addition, in the Mediterranean area in this period, there is sometimes a progressive fragmentation of the wings of the portico which has always characterized the peristyle of the original houses. This is a structural change dictated by specific needs that also cause a change in the intended use of the spaces and a concept that differs from the idea of a single-family home.

casa horno de oro granada
Inner courtyard of the Casa Nazari de la Calle del Horno de Oro n.14, Granada 15th century
Ph: Alhambra Patronage

During the Middle Ages the situation changed radically: the domus of the wealthiest left room for the castle of the Lord of the city. The new residence however, preserves an internal courtyard that fulfills innumerable functions, even becoming a refuge for populations in the event of war attacks. The concept of housing for the wealthier classes becomes of fundamental importance for the social affirmation of the family. From this moment, residential buildings take on great value and during the Renaissance they compete with the grandeur of pre-existing public buildings. The original function of home as a gathering place and nucleus of family life changes, leaving room for the symbolic meaning linked to the power of a single individual. Despite this, the spatial conformation undergoes few changes, mostly maintaining the classic rectangular plan with internal and central open courtyard. The latter housed fountains and veritable gardens designed with care and detail, in order to be a source of pride for the Lord who owned them.

In the following decades, there has been a decline in the use of this solution and the internal courtyard is resumed around the 1920s with a new meaning. Complexes of housing cells organized in real residential blocks that take on the C and L conformation are spreading. In this period the objective is to merge traditional models and innovation with a particular sensitivity to the social aspect, increased by sharing semi-public spaces, the courts precisely.
Today often, the ancient plant that presented the courtyard delimited by the internal rooms has given way to housing cells open on more sides than the context and delimited by private gates or walls.
It is evident that, with the passing of the centuries, the changing society and its specific needs determine the changes in the housing scheme. For this reason, architecture is a faithful mirror of the socio-economic reality of a precise time, where, however, it is possible to find constant characteristics that ensure a certain continuity. Yesterday as today, for example, the internal patio represents a very coveted element, capable of guaranteeing comfort and psycho-physical well-being for the individual.

Studies and creations of the house with modern patio
Throughout history, the typology of the house with patio has been at the center of studies and debates supported by architects and engineers. The first experiments date back to the beginning of the 1900s when some members of the Arts and Craft Movement created some housing solutions with an internal courtyard. The first example of aggregation of single cells, on the other hand, was proposed in 1904 by Tony Garnier with his "Citè Industrielle" but is limited to hypotheses that remained on paper. In reality, the scheme that spread today was developed in the 1920s and 1930s, during the rationalist period in Germany, by architect Hugo Häring. The solution reinterpreted the terraced house scheme, keeping in mind the characteristics of the place and the social needs of the moment. In the following years, the concept of using the open courtyard as a direct extension of the internal space became increasingly popular. The model receives a good consensus thanks to the low construction cost, the high density and the optimal livability.
In Italian territory, the architects Marescotti and Pagano distinguished themselves that around 1940, they proposed some experiments of the L-shaped distribution typology, with solutions that included the grouping of several courtyard houses. These were single-family residences all the same and side by side with the communicating courtyards but divided by a diaphragm, in which the idea of ​​exploiting the open spaces as much as possible was taken up. These studies constitute only the premise of the subsequent post-war reconstruction activity which gave a central role to the house with a high-density courtyard. In 1952 Adalberto Libera with the INA-CASA program, equipped the Tuscolano district in Rome with a housing complex generated by the courtyard typology. The apartments, designed according to four different cuts, were able to accommodate up to eight people. The neighboring areas, the passages and the connections constituted resting and meeting areas, in order to encourage socialization among the inhabitants of the neighborhood. Despite the interesting result, in the following years in Italy, the multi-family type isolated or adjacent to other similar ones, at low cost and developed in height, was preferred to the home with patio.

Patio interno – Adalberto Libera, quartiere Tuscolano
Internal patio - Adalberto Libera, Tuscolano district, 1952
Author of the photo: unknown

Starting from this moment, the patio house was developed as a prestigious single-family type and was interpreted as an escape route from the chaos of the urban fabric. A famous example is the Row House by Tadao Ando, ​​built in Osaka in 1976: following the Japanese tradition, the house looks like an airtight box that nevertheless hides a small open patio inside. The originality of the solution lies in the fundamental importance of the court that must be followed if you want to move from one environment to another. It is an "obligatory passage", thanks to which it is possible to re-establish a relationship with nature and with the open space which also constitutes the focal point of the residence. Also the work of Ando is the Kidosaki House, a private villa built between 1985 and 1986, where the space takes on a complex articulation and winds around the internal courtyard developed on several levels. Raw materials, neutral colors and elegance come together in a union of peace and silence, far from the city frenzy.

Kidosaki-house-1     Kidosaki-house-2
Patio as internal-external continuum - Tadao Ando, Kidosaki House, 1985-1986

And it is always Japan that witnesses the success of court house projects: in this case the Nexus World Housing in Fukuoka. In 1991 Rem Koolhaas & partners designed some individual houses on the occasion of the urban renewal plan. The result is two blocks of 12 lodgings each, equipped with large patios on which the rooms spread over three floors develop. Here, the courtyard is the only source of air and light for homes.

Rem Koolhaas OMA, Nexus World Housing, 1991. Rem Koolhaas OMA, Nexus World Housing, 1991. Source of the left photo:  -  Right photo source:

Types of patio and characteristics

As mentioned above, the patio is often associated with private residences where it plays the role of courtyard or garden overlooked by the interiors.
This is an erroneous consideration since in the past, this space inside the building has found use in other architectural types. Just think of the medieval convents and their cloisters surrounded by four colonnaded wings, along which the monastic rooms were distributed. Even the hospitals of the knightly orders are an illustrious example of complexes with central courtyards. In this case the space was used as a real pharmacy with a laboratory, warehouse and small botanical garden for the cultivation of medicinal herbs.
The concept of patio today is the result of changes in the weather but retains some original connotations.
It is possible to distinguish between external and internal patio. The first is completely uncovered and sometimes has flexible and easily removable covers, the second instead constitutes a sort of "private garden" inserted inside the house and completely covered. The latter type is usually located in the central core of the house and constitutes an element of a predominantly aesthetic character, where ornamental plant species and decorative elements are inserted. This is a solution most often found in villas and residences of a certain value, where it has the dual function of guarantor of brightness and aesthetically valuable element. In Asia, the covered garden belongs to tradition and since ancient times it has been considered an integral factor of the home, a Zen space in which to get away from the hustle and bustle of chaotic cities.

Interior patio view - Hopper House, AHL Architects, Hanoi (Vietnam)

Views of the decorative interior patio - Nishinoyama House, Sanaa Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, Kyoto (Japan)
Images courtesy of Kazuyo Sejima & Associates


Moriyama House -  View of the interior spaces used as a patio by SANAA (Sejima-Nishizawa) - (see drawings here)
Images courtesy of Kazuyo Sejima & Associates from

As for the patio located in the external space adjacent to the residence, it is more widespread and requires greater attention in the design choices and in the future management. Since it is an outdoor area, exposed to the elements, it will be necessary to opt for plant and shrub species suitable for the local climate and for water-repellent and weather-resistant materials. Furthermore, if you want to insert a cover, even if only partial, in the space, it is essential to obtain the necessary documentation and permits before proceeding with the construction of any fixed element. While the internal patio constitutes an intimate block immersed in the rooms of the house, the one used as an outdoor courtyard represents a real continuum between residence and outdoor space. The garden becomes an extension of the living spaces and constitutes an added value in the urban context where the nature-built relationship has now been lost. For this reason, the patio is used as a functional, meeting and relaxation area. It is possible to make a second distinction in relation to the opening of the patio with respect to the context. We speak of a closed patio if the open space belonging to the residence does not provide for any direct contact with the surrounding urban fabric. If, on the other hand, the patio relates to the public space through an opening fence or connects fluidly with it thanks to the absence of diaphragms, we will have to deal with semi-open and open patios. The typological choice is always the result of specific needs, dictated by different socio-economic contexts.

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