Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Reemergence of the Courtyard in Kuwaiti Housing Design

The Reemergence of the Courtyard in Kuwaiti Housing Design

By: Dr. Yasser Mahgoub
Date written: 2003


After its disappearance for more than 40 years, the courtyard house design reemerged in Kuwait. The reemergence of the courtyard is evident in the current design of many new houses in Kuwait. Prestigious villas and middle class houses are being designed using the traditional courtyard concept found in Kuwait during the first half of the 20th century. This article discusses the phenomenon of the reemergence of the courtyard in new houses design in Kuwait and the factors influencing its reemergence as a viable design concept. It also focuses on the meaning and functions of the courtyard as a traditional and modern phenomenon. The study investigates the intentions of the architects who produce and promote the use of the courtyard to their clients. It questions whether the new courtyard similar or different than the old courtyard.

Theoretical Framework

The article explores the phenomenon of the reemergence of the courtyard house design from the theoretical framework of “core/peripheral aspects of the built environment” proposed by Rapoport. (Rapoport, 1989) In his paper “On the Cultural Responsiveness of Architecture, JAE 41/1”, Rapoport distinguished between the core of a culture and its periphery, particularly in conditions of rapid cultural change. The theory states that "certain elements (peripheral) are given up not only willingly but eagerly for new ones, but that others (core) are retained until the latter end. What these are needed to be discovered." (Rapoport, A. (1987)
Previous studies indicated that the theory has proved valid in the architecture of the Gulf countries which witnessed rapid development and change during the second half of the 20th century following the discovery of oil and economic wealth generated by its sales. Many cultural and architectural elements were replaced by modern elements and ways of life; for example; the traditional courtyard houses were replaced by modern villas, the narrow alleys were replaced by wide vehicular streets, and the traditional building materials were replace by concrete and steel. On the other hand, other elements were retained with their original form or with new form; for example the men’s gathering room called Diwan was retained in many the design of new houses as symbol of social status and cultural exchange setting, the high level of required privacy was not reduced suddenly, and the costumes of men and women were not completely abandoned.
In addition, a new phenomenon is currently taking place which is the reemergence of several elements of traditional architecture in contemporary architecture design. The hypothesis of this paper states that some elements of
the traditional built environment are now reappearing as practical solutions that satisfy social needs in the modern environment. The paper attempts to trace the development of one of these elements, namely the courtyard, and the reasons behind its reemergence in the contemporary house design.

Background: The courtyard

According to Davis, The courtyard can be traced back to 2000 B.C. in Mesopotamia and spread throughout what is modern day Syria. When the Moslems conquered the Middle East in the third century, they carried the courtyard concept throughout the Mediterranean region. That's how the architectural style reached Spain, which then centuries later took the idea to Mexico. The courtyard served three purposes. First, it allowed high density in ancient cities which needed to be surrounded by walls to protect against enemy attacks. In those cramped cities, the courtyard also offered privacy. In the desert climates of the Middle East, the design provided solar protection by having everything open toward a mostly shaded courtyard. For the Islamic culture, the courtyard had another benefit: a sheltered place for plants and fountains, fulfilling a religious purpose of creating paradise in the midst of arid country. In addition, the plants and water helped cool the house. The flat roof of an ancient courtyard house was more than a convenient means of construction. It was a family living area, rather like the contemporary family room or patio. In addition to serving as a sitting area on hot summer nights, it also was a sleeping area in good weather. (Davis, 1996)

The courtyard house

The relatively static cooling system used in a courtyard house can provide the basis for understanding modifications that can generate air movement by convection. In hot dry zones, air temperature drops considerably after sunset from re-radiation to the night sky. The air is relatively free of water vapor that would reflect the heat or infrared radiation back toward the ground, as occurs in warm humid regions. To enhance thermal comfort, this phenomenon has been used in the architectural design of houses by employing the courtyard concept. Nature is hostile at ground level in these zones, especially in the deserts. People learned to close their houses to the outside and open them inwardly onto internal courtyards called sahn, which are open to the sky. This arrangement provides drops in air temperature of 10-20 C° (18-36 F°) at night. This might explain why the lunar crescent as a symbol of the night sky is so meaningful to Arab people and ultimately to all Muslims, to the point of appearing on the flags of eight predominantly Muslim nations. As evening advances, the warm air of the courtyard, which was heated directly by the sun and indirectly by the warm buildings, rises and is gradually replaced by the already cooled night air from above. This cool air accumulates in the courtyard in laminar layers and seeps into the surrounding rooms, cooling them. In the morning, the air of the
courtyard, which is shaded by its four walls, and the surrounding rooms heat slowly and remain cool until late in the day when the sun shines directly into the courtyard. The warm wind passing above the house during the day does not enter the courtyard but merely creates eddies inside, unless baffles have been installed to deflect the airflow. In this way, the courtyard serves as a reservoir of coolness. The courtyard concept is universally applied in the traditional architecture of countries in hot arid regions stretching from Iran in the East to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in the West, and in both rural and urban housing design.

The courtyard in Kuwaiti architecture

The courtyard in Kuwaiti traditional architecture

The courtyard was an important feature of traditional architecture in Kuwait. It was recognized by Saleh Al Mutawa as the first element of the “Elements of Old Kuwaiti Architecture”, as he called them. (Al-Mutawa, 1994) He described it as:
The (internal) courtyard, surrounded by rooms from all sides. The courtyard, in that manner, secured full ventilation to all rooms, to reduce the intense heat during the summer nights. As parts of the courtyard were in shade, its temperature was cool, because the sun did not fill it. Those created places to sit in. During the night, temperature reduced due to thermal exchange with outer space. Evaporative cooling took place when the courtyard was sprayed with water.
The courtyard was used a place where activities such as family sitting children playing take place. It was not an open are to “look at” but rather a place “to be in.” The design of the house started by the courtyard and then surrounded by the rooms.
The courtyard satisfied many functional, environmental, social, and cultural requirements including:
- Provided space for family to conduct their daily activities
- Satisfied privacy requirement away from visual contact with the street
- Provided a protected space from harsh natural environment
- Secured an safe place for children to play

The courtyard in Kuwaiti modern architecture

The disappearance of the courtyard house design was the result of modern planning of Kuwait during the second half of the 20th century. After the discovery of oil in the 1940’s and the economic wealth associated with it, the government of Kuwait decided to modernize the country. The ruler of Kuwait invited the British firm Monoprio, Spencely and Macfarlane in 1952 to develop a new plan for Kuwait using the state of the art theories of planning at that time.
In their Report on the Plan for the Town of Kuwait, Minoprio et al called attention to the need to develop “a simple set of rules to govern the way in which buildings shall be erected, their height, the amount of land which each can occupy, and the distance between buildings, will be necessary.”(Minoprio, 1951) The establishment of modern zoning and building regulations, the introduction of new building materials and construction methods, and the desire to modernize and upgrade the living conditions of the citizens during the fifties gave way to the modern villa to replace the traditional courtyard house.
The individual villa on a lot of land with setbacks from all sides became the ideal image for family living. It became the icon of modernization and modern life in Kuwait. Building regulations of the design of private houses in Kuwait encouraged the establishment of the individual villa as the only form of acceptable house design. (Mahgoub, 2002)
The absence of native Kuwaiti architects during the fifties and sixties allowed for the construction of many villas by foreign architects from neighboring Arab or foreign countries. Ignorant about local culture and traditional practices, and following only the newly established building regulations, the expatriate architects were produced repetitive images of modern villas enforcing the image of villa replace the traditional courtyard house. Even public housing projects were designed according to the same standards that introduced the villa as the ideal image for a house.

The courtyard in Kuwaiti contemporary architecture

The reemergence of the courtyard in modern house designs in Kuwait could be attributed to the following reasons:
1. The return of many young Kuwaiti architects from education abroad with consciousness of the value of traditional architecture as heritage of architectural solutions.
2. The development of building regulations and the reduction of setbacks reducing privacy between neighboring houses to levels intolerable to residents.
3. The increased level of education and intellectualism of house owners to the level of accepting traditional architecture as wealth of architecture solutions and not mere relics of the past.
4. A post-modern trend to return to traditional architecture as a source of solutions and expression of identity especially after the crisis of the invasion by Iraq which generated a strong need for a sense of cultural identity in architecture and the built environment.
5. The slow paste of change in family and social relationships that facilitated the constant need for high levels of privacy in the house. For example, the large terrace of the villa are seldom used for sitting by family members and large windows are always closed.

The following are examples of contemporary courtyard houses:


In many traditional-turned-modern environments we found elements of traditional environment reemerging to satisfy modern needs. According to Nawangwe “Modernism could be combined with local “reworked” vernacular elements in order to achieve local or national identity. … Another major shortcoming of modernism, which also needs to be addressed is the failure to produce living environments that are psychologically and socially fulfilling. Studies of vernacular architecture in Uganda have revealed that certain design aspects that were ignored by modernism actually have a lot to offer. The threshold, recurring theme in Ugandan vernacular architecture, can add a useful psychological dimension to the experience of moving from one place to the next.” (Nawangwe ,2002, p. 11)
The reemergence of the courtyard in current Kuwait houses supports Rapoport’s theory and adds to it that certain elements might reemerge in the future as traditional solutions reworked to satisfy new needs. It is important to understand the change in meaning of the reemerged element when compared to its traditional use. While other traditional elements are still absent from the modern design they can reemerge, as the courtyard did, when circumstances and socio-cultural needs exist.


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