It is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with the idea of a courtyard house. But in retracing my design-led movements across the globe, physically and via the internet, I recall specific dwellings that ignited my imagination and built the blocks of my book, Courtyard Living: Contemporary Houses of the Asia-Pacific . One was the architectural benchmark Schindler House – completed in 1922, in West Hollywood, California – partly because it sanctioned a “revisionist” lifestyle: architect Rudolph Schindler and his wife Pauline ate outside, slept beneath the stars and shared their home with others until the good times ended. (Eventually they would live together again, but independently, in its large studio rooms.) Another was Alison and Peter Smithson’s groovy one-bedroom, windowless town house. Their theoretical design, entered in a 1956 House of the Future competition in Britain, featured a courtyard in the middle that provided natural light and an outdoor area overlooked by none. There were also the quadrangle houses detailed in Ronald Knapp’s many books about China’s architectural heritage. One in particular shaped my world. A few years after its restoration in the 1990s, the 19th century Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion , in Penang, Malaysia , taught me about “sandwich living” – albeit not on the scale envisaged by the Chinese “Rockefeller of the East”. He had hoped to accommodate nine generations of Cheongs in his Chinese courtyard house. The now-heritage-listed landmark, better known as the Blue Mansion, drew me into its central courtyard to deliver lessons about interior voids, the wonder of symmetry, feng shui and that ineffable substance called “ qi ”. For the only time in my life, I felt the energy of a building coursing through my body. Maybe it was the suggestion of feng shui perfection that gave me the shivers. Or perhaps I was experiencing in that internal yard the delectable buzz of a world contained within walls – similar to Arabic courtyards that flowered lifetimes ago and embodied paradise on Earth. Courtyard houses have existed for thousands of years and can be found worldwide, including in the Asia-Pacific region, where styles have evolved from traditional, vernacular designs. These types of dwellings continue to be desired for many of the reasons they were built in the past: internal gardens and voids admit air and light; create social spaces; extend living areas by becoming protected outdoor “rooms”; enhance privacy; and cater to indoor-outdoor living. In the 10 locations I visited for research, however, it became clear that courtyard houses were niche choices for reasons of cost (because of additional exterior surfaces) and the natural tendency to want more, not less, in terms of gross floor area. For the last reason alone, my book features no contemporary courtyard houses in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most expensive property markets. During the 15 years I’ve been the South China Morning Post design editor, I’ve featured in these pages 750-plus of the city’s most photogenic homes. But I remain captivated by the stories people tell about the spaces they’ve created for themselves and others. Writing this book exposed me to different narratives and priorities. In this excerpt, three courtyard houses, in Singapore, India and Taiwan, underscore why the type of dwelling remains relevant today. 17 Blair Road, Singapore Singapore has manifold reminders of its founder, Sir Stamford Raffles , whose historical importance is underscored in the names of everything from landmarks to streets to businesses and even flora and fauna – the Nepenthes rafflesiana pitcher plant among them. But the British statesman’s legacy also lurks in the shadows of this former colony. In 1822 his was the directive that the city’s shophouses have uniform fronts. Not only that, but they were to provide space “open at all times as a continued and covered passage on each side of the street”. Thus was born the “five-foot way”, so called because of the minimum width allowing pedestrians to shelter from the elements as they went about their business. These public thoroughfares are artefacts of times past, but walk across the veranda of this Ong & Ong-designed home on Blair Road and you cross a threshold into the 21st century. Unlike many of the 20-plus shophouses Maria Arango and Diego Molina have restored in the Lion City, this 4,845 sq ft dwelling – restored to reflect the ornate Late Shophouse Style prevalent in Singapore from 1900 to 1930 – boasts an internal rectangular courtyard spanning the five-metre width of the property. But it was not always like this. In its former life as a converted warehouse, all the courtyard elements had been removed such that the ground floor was a single, continuous space stretching the entire length of the property from street to alleyway. Little wonder the new owners chose to puncture the dark cocoon. Though an important feature admitting light and air, the interior courtyard is allowed a certain flexibility by the city state’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, whose shophouse conservation guidelines are otherwise stringent. Arango and Molina say that owners are thus the ones determining size, shape and even if the space is to be roofed, which allows for all manner of layouts: often the void is half the property’s width, although sometimes it is only the size of a light well, and large shophouses may be segmented by several voids. Making the most of their unusually long plot, the French-Singaporean owners opted for a generous patch of green between their front and rear blocks. The space provides a safe playground for their two children in a park-poor area, and is a focal point of almost every room. From the entrance itself, your gaze is drawn through the main living area to the garden and beyond, underscoring, too, the role courtyards can play not only as the main source of illumination but also in creating magical spaces with alternating natural light. The brightest indoor areas flank the courtyard, and centre on family meals, which are taken in the double-volume kitchen of the back block, or, more formally, at the dining table in the front building. From these spots, lushness confronts you horizontally and vertically, with the garden continuing up one of two party walls as the cohesive element tying the floors together and connecting them to the courtyard. Via this green wall, and courtesy of a planter box, foliage spills into the main en suite on the top level of the three-storey front block. Below, from the balcony belonging to one of the children’s bedrooms, the leopard tree in the courtyard seems almost within reach. A slatted timber screen partially encloses the courtyard-facing rooms, providing shade and airflow – both crucial in tropical architecture. Privacy was also a factor. “The original plan was to be totally connected to the courtyard and not to have the timber screen, but our clients really liked the peekaboo effect,” says Arango. “Also, the kitchen is very open and people always end up gathering there. They didn’t want their daughter’s room or the master bathroom to be clearly visible from that area.” As with other shophouses redesigned for modern lifestyles, this project required back-and-forth consultations with the authorities, owing in part to its location within the Blair Plain conservation area (one of Singapore’s historic residential districts), which placed the building in the highest preservation category. Directives were issued for everything from tiling to roof span and wall placement, particularly for the front building. Despite less scrutiny of the rear areas, the original size and location of the courtyard were nevertheless determined through “architectural archaeology” and more or less faithfully reproduced, according to Arango. “We could see the columns where the courtyard would have started, and took it from there.” Having to move across open space may not appeal to those Singaporeans who prefer closed, air-conditioned comfort but, for the owners, an awning high up provides adequate shelter. “It does rain a lot here but we also have very nice days and if we can allow air to flow through the house that is an achievement,” says Arango. Sir Stamford would no doubt have agreed. Gomati House, Malavli, India Clambering all over someone’s home is not generally advisable, but at Gomati House it’s a lovely way to reach the living areas on the top floor. The climb, which begins from a curved path beneath shady trees, proceeds up a knoll, continues past a long swimming pool and ends about 4.5 metres above the driveway. Look up and you see a sleek, glazed pavilion; over its roof and there are the Malavli hills, to which Bombayites gravitate during summer; back down and you’re in a tropical grove. So verdant is the view from this vantage point it is hard to imagine it any other way. But if the trees could speak they would tell of a time when they were an afterthought. Then, the house occupying this 40,000 sq ft plot had tried without success to capitalise on the mountain vistas alone. Worse, it had failed structurally, which is why, after years of fearing a collapse, the owners decided to demolish the 20-year-old building and start afresh. “You’re actually walking over the old house,” says SPASM Design Architects’ Sanjeev Panjabi as we make the gentle ascent, over grass. Rubble – including the original roof – was used to create a 1½-storey mound that became part of the 10,500 sq ft home, completed in 2016. For this, Panjabi and his wife, studio co-founder Sangeeta Merchant, gave their clients simple, straight lines and a “wallpaper” of green. “We turned the house the other way,” says Panjabi. “The dumbness of the original house was that it didn’t look at the trees.” With the project’s raison d’être being the protection of the 50-plus mature species on site, creating courtyards that would make way for them was a given. “Weaving a house around trees is a sensible way to bring inside and outside into close connection,” says Panjabi. “And apart from the obvious gains, a patch of sky is the most beautiful thing to have inside your home. It allows you to sense the passage of time.” The upper level of Gomati House in summer enjoys not only yellow-topped laburnums and red poincianas at the bottom of the knoll, but also the luxuriant trees growing in the courtyards below. Palm fronds and branches laden with mangoes poke through two large cut-outs on the expansive terrace, which extends from a living room and dining area flanked and divided by staircases. If the breezes upstairs carry away the sounds of wildlife, downstairs the chirrups, squawks and birdsong seem magnified. The stereophonic effect is particularly evident in the family room, which sits between the pair of courtyards and can be opened on two sides to the elements. In wet weather discreet rain chains help guide water run-off, and during heavy downpours blinds can be anchored around the courtyards to keep the interior surfaces dry. Even without the rain, however, this bottom floor, partially sunken into the mound, offers respite. Its lushly planted courtyards reduce indoor air temperature through evaporative cooling. Giant monsteras and philodendrons added to the existing trees also help to filter the light, enhancing the grey-blues of the textured stone floors throughout. “The whole house is an expression in one stone,” says Panjabi, referring to kota (a type of limestone, quarried in Rajasthan), chosen because of its texture and hue. The same material clads the walls, including the monolithic barrier, promising immovability, alongside the drive. On the bottom floor kota also appears in the kitchen (which has its own courtyard) and the five bedrooms, designed to be introverted refuges around the existing trees. This being a holiday home, two rooms are for guests and the rest, on the opposite side, to be used by members of the extended family (Gomati is the name of the owner’s mother). The dissimilarity between the two levels is not lost on Panjabi, who describes the bright upper pavilion as a complete antithesis to the lower storey. “It’s a reversal,” he says, referring to the big-sky openness of one in contrast to the cosiness of the other. Greenery, nevertheless, connects the two levels and affords the top floor priceless views that had been rejected before. “The trees are the protagonists,” Panjabi says. “We built a story around them.” Courtyard House, Changhua, Taiwan As social models go, multigenerational living attracts spirited and sustained applause. But the reality is that, increasingly, extended families remaining together by choice is the exception rather than the rule. Housing must share the blame. Taiwanese architect Tze-Chun Wei, who has lived most of his life with his parents and siblings, points to a lack of buffer zones in modern homes as a reason for the atomisation of families. Now a father of two, he and five other adult Weis reside in a home designed for the 21st century but inspired by thousands of years of tradition. His contemporary version of a Chinese courtyard house enables three generations to share space while leading individual lives – thus embracing the Confucian family ideal of old, young and in-between under one roof. It helped that they didn’t have far to move. Instead of acquiring a residential plot close to the family’s hosiery business in Changhua County, Taiwan, they built on the roof of their single-storey factory. Access to the 7,125 sq ft house, via a lift or staircase, is from a private corner of the long industrial building. Away from the workers’ entrance and parking, that section of the factory had been their home for decades. Until they moved up four years ago, the family inhabited three non-insulated rooms behind the office. “There was no natural light, and internal walls were just plywood partitions that didn’t reach the ceiling,” says Wei. “Our lives were tied to the factory.” Not surprising then that in conceiving his family’s new home, Wei, of Dotze Architecture, considered how best to design a cool, quiet dwelling filled with natural light, yet shielded from public scrutiny. Internal views would shift the focus inwards. Private areas were important, of course, but so were shared zones. These considerations led to a square-doughnut-shaped house with a 1,700 sq ft courtyard in the middle. A looped corridor connects individual units, while small “sky voids” at the corners of the building separate them. Protecting the entire house is a perimeter, blockwork wall, perforated for controlled views in all directions. Like the Chinese quadrangle houses of yore, hierarchy lay behind the assignment of space. But where ancient codes would have placed senior family members farthest from the entrance (these areas being the most secure), in the Wei residence other factors were more important. “My parents wanted to be close to the kitchen and entrance,” says Wei, adding that positioning their three-room suite as requested allowed the siblings to occupy the opposite end of the house, each side enjoying its own living area. Activity wise, however, the dining room, attached to the open kitchen, is the most important family space. “We all eat together,” says Wei. “That is a must.” So although the site for shared meals constitutes the heart of the house, the courtyard, accommodating the living room in a stand-alone cube, is the centre. “The object”, as Wei refers to the cube, and its placement at a 45-degree angle, solved conceptual problems. One was the contradiction inherent in the modern desire to live with greater transparency but also privacy. Another was a courtyard that would have felt too open, and thus insecure. In the cube, with windows bisecting the volume in a horizontal band, you feel as though you’re on an observation deck. The position of the entrance suggests a communal area shared by all the siblings but, in reality, it is used mostly by Wei’s brother and sister only. Wei and his family relax in the work-and-television room beside their bedroom, and his parents in the reading section of their suite. With the placement of the living room in the courtyard, through views across the square are obstructed but not completely blocked. Not being a hub of activity, it is also bare, save for a potted tree and a few pieces of furniture. “My dad likes emptiness, so we kept it empty,” says Wei. “Courtyards represent gathering – of people, the air, the sun,” says Wei. “Everyone had their own building [in his father’s old house] but they felt like they were living under the same roof, and that has symbolic meaning. It means you are one family.” As with the Chinese courtyard houses of antiquity, separation and connection were crucial to building togetherness in this family home. Courtyard Living: Contemporary Houses of the Asia-Pacific , by Charmaine Chan, is published by Thames & Hudson.