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


On the north bank of the Thames River, between North Woolwich Road and Thames Barrier in Silvertown (on the outskirts of London, England) lies one of the finest modern parks in Britain.  The Thames Barrier Park was opened in the new millennium (2000), a regenerated formerely contaminated site that once housed timber treatment plants, petrochemical and acid works for over 150 years on the riverbank. It is a 27-acre site of inner city greenery wedged between two modern housing developments along the riverside.

French designers Alain Provost (designer of Parc Citroen in Paris) and Alain Cousseran of Group Signes teamed up with Brit architects Patel Taylor and Ove Arup to transform this former brownfield site.

A parti diagram of this landscape would be a simple rectangle sliced by a diagonal line.

What you see is a vast carpet of rolling hedgerows and lawn blanketing a space between the railway line and the silver domes (or as locals refer to them –“cockleshells”) of the Thames Barrier (the dramatic engineering structure that prevents the centre of the capital being inundated when floods of water are coming down river, and high tides advancing from the east.)

To remediate this brownfield a significant amount of the soil was hauled off, but the bulk of the materials were simply rearranged to reflect the vision of the design team. This profile was then capped with crushed concrete and a geotextile layer and topped off with imported clean soil to confirm the site's suitability for use.

Fields of wildflowers, a grid network of birches and stretching the length of the park is the largest and perhaps most modernesque sunken garden in London – known as the “Green Dock”.  This simulation of a marine dock is accessible by the public and crossed by two viewing bridges.  The planting is a tidal flow of wave-cut hedges alternating with beds of perennials such as Geranium cantabrigiense, Nepeta (catmint), Papaver (poppies) and more.
A group of local friends regularly play hide + seek in the park

Note the separate trash can for fido waste

**all photos Todd Haiman 2010


Additional information on the life work of Ralph Hancock can be found through a site was developed by his family   www. ralphhancock.com.

And here's a podcast link off BBC radio...

Ralph Hancock - Dear Tempestuous Genius from Robin Hull on Vimeo.


A rill is a narrow and shallow incision into soil resulting from erosion by overland flow that has been focused into a thin thread by soil surface roughness. A rill may also refer to narrow channels of water inset in the pavement of a garden, as a water feature. The precedents come from Persian Gardens and Moorish Spanish Gardens. One of the most historically significant is found at the Alhambra in Granada Spain.  At the Court of the Lions (within the Alhambra) a central fountain links the surrounding buildings through a cruciform pattern of water channels or “rills”.
image from wallpapers.bassq.nl
More London is a new development on the south bank of the River Thames, immediately south-west of Tower Bridge in London. It includes the City Hall, a sunken amphitheatre called The Scoop, office blocks, shops, restaurants, cafes, and a pedestrianized area containing open-air sculptures and water features, including fountains lit by coloured lights. The Hilton London Tower Bridge hotel opened in September 2006. Set on 13 Acres, it uses water (The Thames, rills and fountains) as the backbone, the design gesture that links it from one end to the other.  
image from morelondon.com

Beginning at London Bridge Station/Tooley Street a series of simple fountain pools evolve to a rill that runs diagonally (a thousand feet, approx) through the buildings at the center of a pedestrian esplanade to the River Thames with the Tower Bridge as it’s focal point. Before you arrive at the River Thames you are greeted at the Scoop, an open air ampitheatre with at grade fountains. A thoroughly engaging public space.

follow this onsite model--entrance is at bottom, photo tour following bring you to the top of model.

pools of water @ entrance w. rill on left/Tooley street to right

Master planning and design for the area was by Foster + Partners, while the water features (rill, pools and fountains) were developed with Robert Townshend Landscape Architects.

all imagery unless noted otherwise are ©Todd Haiman 2010