One of my favorite texts, “A Pattern Language” begins its discussion of courtyards critical of the many courtyards built in modern buildings which are very often considered “dead” space."  “They are intended to be private open spaces for people to use – but they end up unused, full of gravel and abstract sculptures.” 

Reasons for their failure according to the authors are three-fold. 1) The connection between indoor and outdoor space and the transition between the two is not sufficiently addressed – “people need an ambiguous in-between realm – a porch or a veranda, which they naturally pass onto often, so that they can naturally drift to the outside.” 2) The space lacks functionality and circulation – doors should be on opposite sides, “the space “becomes a meeting point for different activities, provide access to them, overflow from them and cross-circulation” between these doors/portals. 3) There are no “loopholes” – or views beyond the space --- you should not feel completely enclosed within the courtyard.
 Bodleian Library (first image) and Courtyard (latter two images)

I agree whole-heartedly with the authors, but in deference to them, these “design failures” of courtyards do not always limit them.  Recently I visited the courtyard of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, a four hundred year old space (originally built in the early 1600’s) and considered these design precepts as I meandered through it’s courtyard.   What do you think?

For a 360-degree view of the courtyard which provides a unique perspective as if one were actually there, try this link: Panoramic photograph of Bodleian Library Courtyard, Oxford

Ironically the publisher (of this text) was Oxford University Press! As another aside, The Library's fine architecture has made it a favorite location for filmmakers.  The Bodelian Library can be seen in the first two Harry Potter films.

*all quotations from A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Murray/Sara Ishikawa/Murray Siverstein
New York: Oxford University Press  1977
**unless noted, photograph of Bodleian Library Courtyard ©Todd Haiman 2010



Project: An above-grade, on-structure courtyard for library building designed by world renowned architect Robert A. M Stern.  Courtyard is to be a roof garden space above the mezzanine level, surrounded on three sides by structure yet open with a view on the southern exposure side. Building drawings were supplied; program was developed based upon the Jacksonville Library’s existing and anticipated future needs.

Creation: The design addresses the awareness, promotion and implementation of a sustainable environment, renewable energy sources and associated technologies within the learning environment of a library. There is a tremendous opportunity inherent in building this design to incorporate and educate users, students and visitors on these lessons within a library and a public setting.

From an aesthetic and structural perspective, the program addresses the following:
1) considers the courtyard as a conduit of nature, (2) takes advantage of the “verticality of space”, (3) articulates itself to the pre-existing aesthetic, and (4) creates intimacy within a public realm.

This roof garden is created with an overall grid design. Entrances to the garden from surroundingstructures on all three sides become linked allees with a dual axis aligned between them. Antithetic to the precedent of a traditional library reading room (which is typically designed as a “war room”), this design proposal creates exterior “READING ROOMS.” These rooms can be enjoyed in solitude or in small groups; seating is flexible – chairs can be within the room or outside them. Each structural room within the courtyard maintains its own green roof.

I envision 10’ square outdoor “rooms” constructed with recycled steel that create a framework. Plexiglass walls will be attached on opposite sides with the two remaining sides open. Lighting panels surround the exterior facade of the plant container unit, which sits above the room. When viewed at night, the illuminated panels covering these plant containers create a surreal effect of floating books. These reading rooms are fitted with interior lights for reading at dusk, as the library maintains evening hours.

Hidden within the steel framework of each room are irrigation and drainage tubing to supply the plant material above. Also hidden within the steel framework are electrical cables to power the exterior light panels encasing the plant and the interior reading lights. The electrical power is sourced via the renewable energy of the solar panels on the Library’s roof.

The Jacksonville Library is a five-story building with a footprint that occupies the majority of a city block. Considering the enormity of the roofs surface, there is substantial stormwater run-off. This proposal envisions captured rainwater/stormwater run-off, harvesting graywater and creating storage for this in cisterns or rain barrels. Irrigation of low-water-demand vegetation would be implemented with climate-based controllers on a drip irrigation system.

Hardscape surface to be created out of recycled material – cobbles for the floor, brick surrounding the planters. Tall native grasses at the southern edge form a natural looking boundary obscuring the invisible edge of the plexiglass wall beyond it. The choice of structural evergreens as plant material within each roof container contributes to complementing the classic, formal design of Robert A.M. Stern’s architectural aesthetic for the building. Library executive offices, meeting rooms on the higher floors and public rooms on the lower floors all have equal views to the multi-level plant material.

The design of reading “rooms” within a garden metaphorically pays homage to the garden designer’s lexicon, which commonly refers to gardens as outdoor rooms.