How courtyard houses and gardens are being reintroduced in the UAE

The courtyard house and garden have fallen out of favour in recent decades in the UAE. We consider recent examples and whether the style could be more widely used.
The architecture at the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara in Abu Dhabi is an example of how the courtyard house and garden style is being reintroduced in the UAE. Courtesy Minor Hotel Group
The architecture at the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara in Abu Dhabi is an example of how the courtyard house and garden style is being reintroduced in the UAE. Courtesy Minor Hotel Group

Courtyard houses and gardens have appeared in architectural-design traditions all over the world, stretching back through recorded history. However, we can attribute the Middle East with being the first region to see the genius in this method of spatial arrangement.

The courtyard house first appeared circa 6,400 to 6,000BC in the central Jordan Valley, and the ancient nomadic peoples of the Middle East even arranged their tents to form a protected central space. In the Gulf, the tents were arranged around the herding area or the oasis, forming a circle or square with the sheikh’s tent in the middle so that guests could recognise it. This gave security, privacy and shelter from the elements to people and their animals. These incredibly desirable traits in housing have been used in architecture and landscaping ever since.

Interestingly, the courtyard house and garden have fallen somewhat from favour in recent decades in the UAE, as the country has become influenced by western-style housing that, unsurprisingly, is far less suited to the weather and culture of this ­region.

The traditional Middle Eastern courtyard house and garden exhibit regional differences, yet certain characteristics are almost universal. The style features thick external walls (in some locations, the walls average 50 centimetres thick), with the rooms of the house arranged over one or more levels, facing onto an uncovered central area that could be used as a garden or just as open space providing air and light for the areas surrounding it. The thick walls are multifunctional – they provide temperature regulation in extreme climates, privacy and protection against unwelcome intruders. Often, the central courtyard will feature a fountain, which further cools the space via evaporation, creating a ­microclimate. Another common attribute is the planting of deciduous trees, which provide shade in summer, yet allow the sunlight through in winter, when they drop their leaves.

House planning that prioritises privacy is a common feature of courtyard houses in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The characteristic is common in all Muslim houses in the region, although it’s interesting that the houses that belonged to middle-class Christian and Jewish families shared many similarities. This is evidence that Middle Eastern housing styles were affected by common social and cultural values that were accepted in the region, regardless of religion.

Like other countries in the Middle East, vernacular architecture in the UAE was deeply influenced by traditional lifestyles and social customs. The extremely harsh environment may have been even more of a factor here than elsewhere, and construction materials were severely limited to what was locally available.

Therefore, privacy and ventilation were the major influences in the layout of UAE domestic dwellings. A central interior courtyard (al hoash or al hawi), onto which all the rooms opened, was restricted to family use, and was often just an open space, shaded by verandas but without plants, where children could play and women would carry out various household tasks. The courtyard generated wind movement in the house by allowing hot air to ascend and the cooler air to replace it from the surrounding rooms. Cooking facilities were located at one end of the courtyard, which also functioned as an eating and sleeping area in the hot summer months. The majlis, or meeting rooms, where the male members of the family entertained male guests, were separate from the family quarters.

With the courtyard house and garden having evolved as a style that’s clearly so appropriate for the climate and culture of the region, it’s somewhat baffling that it has largely disappeared from residential architecture, especially in larger cities. A drive around suburban neighbourhoods such as Emirates Hills, Al Barsha, Nad Al Sheba or Khalifa City demonstrates a marked preference for large, stately villas with dramatic facades, combined with lush lawns and gardens surrounding the house. Yet because of the need for privacy, the expansive front gardens will normally be used for little more than car parking and impressing the neighbours. The back of the house often features a swimming pool and space for the family to eat and relax outdoors, but again, because the neighbours or passers-by can easily catch a glimpse of these areas, they are often woefully underused.

The similarities with an Americanised “McMansion” attitude to home building are very apparent. This approach probably arrived here because of the rapid pace of urbanisation over the past 20 years, which has placed high value on speed of construction, favouring modern building techniques and imported architectural styles over traditional methods.

The UAE wants to be seen as a modern, dynamic country – keen to adopt the best ways of doing things from advanced developed cultures. In the headlong rush to modernise, it’s not surprising that the old ways can get thrown aside – yet the courtyard style is so timeless that it transcends concepts such as “modern” and “old-fashioned”.

There are some stunning recent examples of the courtyard style in the UAE, though. Dubai examples include Bab Al Shams and The One&Only Royal Mirage, both designed by GAJ Architects, and both including striking examples of courtyard-style spaces. The Souk Madinat Jumeirah features interior courtyards within its labyrinthine setting of shops and restaurants, and internal courtyards also remain a strong feature within mosque architecture, especially in larger mosques.

But what about private residential dwellings, where the courtyard garden originated? The beautiful Al Barari development incorporates private courtyards within its expansive villas, yet they’re also surrounded by lush exterior gardens. In this respect, it’s an aesthetically successful integration of old and new styles, and reflects what many of the UAE’s top architects are designing for their high-end villa clients. Yet the original intention of the Middle Eastern courtyard garden is somewhat negated when there’s a sizeable landscape area surrounding the villa. When you consider that the sheltered courtyard provides a much better growing environment for plants than the open landscape, with its intense sunlight and hot summer winds, why not make courtyard gardens larger and the landscapes around the villa much smaller, if not remove them altogether?

Maybe we need to look outside the UAE for the best examples of contemporary residential courtyards that demonstrate the characteristics of this style – especially within the desert environment: privacy, air, light, and protection from the elements. Wendell Burnette Architects has designed an amazing house in the Arizona desert that’s situated on a sloping, rocky site. The facade from the entrance appears fortress-like, yet within the dwelling, huge windows are situated to capture expansive desert views, without sacrificing privacy.

The living areas enclose a simple yet stunning courtyard garden, with deciduous trees providing welcome extra shade during the summer. Throughout, the house is filled with luxurious touches, such as backlit, onyx-panelled bathrooms and sophisticated control systems, yet the natural courtyard garden provides a central grounding element, a welcoming, protected space, and a reminder to pause and reflect on the beauty of the natural environment.

This house achieves everything that new UAE architecture aspires to: modernity, cutting-edge technology, sumptuous detail, stunning views and ultimate privacy. It manages this in no small part by embracing an architectural style that was invented in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Combining the old and the new in a type of housing that is ideal for the desert environment – what’s not to love about that?

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Published: November 20, 2014 04:00 AM


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