Private or isolating? Though popular, courtyard housing depends on the individual
The past decade has seen revived interest in courtyard housing. Peter Barber at Donnybrook, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios at Accordia, and most recently Alison Brooks Architects at Newhall Be, have used the courtyard house to provide family homes. But do people like living in them? What do they like and dislike? If we are going to use this typology on a wide scale we need to know.
In 2012 I undertook a qualitative survey of residents at Bishopsfield, Harlow, designed by Michael Neylan in 1960 and arguably the most famous courtyard-housing scheme in Britain. Semi-structured interviews found opinions divided, but 90% of participants said they liked their homes.
Residents were positive about the house designs, particularly the courtyard garden and the light and sense of space it brings inside the home. Every room has a connection to the garden and it is used as much as any other room: ‘It’s as if the garden doesn’t get weather, it’s another room,’ said one.
Neylan intended each home to be able to be adapted by residents and the design and construction has allowed all manner of changes, providing for a range of people. A typical comment was: ‘Not just one type of person lives here; we’re not all arty liberals. You’ll see people that have turned their homes into an English cottage, with garden gnomes. You can do what you want here.’
For residents, Bishopsfield evidently has a strong identity; people feel part of a place greater than their home. It is less clear how much they identify with their own home and lane. Residents have to explain to visitors how to navigate the estate to find their home.
The relationship with the car has proven the most divisive element of Bishopsfield. Neylan, in accordance with the logic of the time, gave the street to pedestrians, separating them from the vehicles placed beneath. This has brought benefits that residents universally enjoy, most of all safety. But it also generates some of the biggest complaints. The garages are dark and unwelcoming and the lack of car access to the front door is an incredible inconvenience. More than this, it has reduced the independence of the elderly, who must rely heavily on neighbours.
The estate is seen as a good place for children, both residents and visitors. The steep lanes, ramps, steps, podium, squares and green wedges are considered a safe playground. The homes’ internal arrangements allow good supervision of children: ‘We can let our child use the house freely, and they have become much more confident and independent,’ is a common response.
Residents enjoy the privacy created by the design of their home. But the high degree of privacy places emphasis on individuals to actively engage with their neighbours, something that not everyone is able to do. As one person said: ‘I like the privacy with no outward-looking windows but I can see how it might be difficult. I broke some bones a while ago and there was just the garden to face every day.’
Most residents feel that the estate has a good sense of community due both to its design and the people in it: ‘You can’t help but get to know people here... you have to walk up the lane past each other to get to your house.’
Bishopsfield residents have been active in creating the community, through events and campaigns organised by the residents’ association. Many made the choice to live in Bishopsfield. Some consider themselves to be private people and decided to live there because of this, while others were aware of the active community and wanted to be a part of it.
However, courtyard housing offers a particular way of living and it is not suitable for everyone. For some, particularly the elderly, they are too private, and can leave people feeling isolated. Courtyard housing relies on good neighbours and works best when people have chosen to live there, rather than finding themselves allocated a home. But generally, to judge from Bishopsfield, people who live in courtyard housing greatly enjoy it.
Paul Wynn is an architectural assistant at Rick Mather Architects. His dissertation on Bishopsfield, supervised by Mark Swenarton, formed part of his MArch at Liverpool School of Architecture