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Comparison between the Eastern and western approaches to design

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Comparison between the Eastern and western approaches to design, construction and layout of courtyard houses in history.

Courtyard Houses – Definition and evolution

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A courtyard house is usually a large house with private open spaces where the main part of the building is disposed around the central courtyard.

Courtyard houses are prevalent in residential architecture across the world and across centuries. The early courtyard houses of the Chinese dates back to 3000 BC.  Prior to courtyards the central part of homes usually had a fireplace with a small hole in the ceiling to let the smoke out.

Over time these small openings became larger and evolved to what we call today as courtyards. Prevalent in temperate climates where the weather is warm, the courtyards were conceived as a building feature to allow more lighting and ventilation. However they are found across many cultures and varying climatic countries of the world.

Key features of courtyard houses

The courtyard houses usually had a central space that was open to sky and all the main rooms of the house opened into the courtyard.

Most of the windows were facing the courtyard and the external walls had lesser or no openings.

Chinese courtyard houses

The traditional Chinese courtyard houses are called the “SIHEYUAN” meaning a courtyard surrounded by four houses. The siheyuan or the courtyard composition forms the basic pattern or a template for residential architecture in China. This extends to their palaces, temples, monasteries and other buildings as well.  A spacious siheyuan was usually occupied by a single large family, the size of the courtyard indicating the owner’s social stature and even taxes were collected accordingly; controlled by city planning.

Layout of a siheyuan

A typical layout of a siheyuan has the four main buildings positioned along the north-south and east-west axis.

Main house of the building faces the south and is positioned to the north. The north, eastern and western buildings are connected by pathways. During the day, the courtyard provides shelter from the sun and it cools the house in the night providing the right ambience to appreciate the courtyard. The north side was believed to be an element of water that prevents fire.

Opposite house: The building that faces the north is known as the opposite house.

Backside building: Behind the north building is a separate backside building which is the only place where two storey buildings were allowed to be constructed.

Entrance gate is usually in the south-eastern corner or the wind corner according to Chinese beliefs. Usually a screen wall is constructed inside the gate mainly for privacy and was also believed to ward off evil spirits.

Windows: The rooms around the courtyard had larger windows facing the courtyard and smaller or no windows facing the street outside.

Number of courtyards: The number of courtyards an enclosure had was seen as a sign of prosperity or social status. Some larger houses had two or more courtyards.

Concepts: The five elements namely wood, fire, earth, metal and water were the main composition of the Chinese courtyard homes. They also conceptualized the house on the basis o f ”eight diagrams”, each with three broken or unbroken lines indicating the yin line and the yang line. These lines are also called trigrams. The eight trigrams are represented by heaven, wind, water, mountain, earth, thunder, fire and lake. Each trigram relates to a specific “mood” and rooms were positioned based on these calculations as shown in the table below:






Expansive energy, the sky.
Eldest Daughter
Gentle penetration, flexibility.
Middle Son
Danger, rapid rivers, the abyss, the moon.
Youngest Son
Stillness, immovability.
Receptive energy, that which yields.
Eldest Son
Excitation, revolution, division.
Middle Daughter
Rapid movement, radiance, the sun.
Youngest Daughter
Joy, satisfaction, stagnation

Lighting: The buildings are designed such that the northern main building receives maximum sunlight and usually serves as living and bedroom for the family head. East and western parts of the buildings are moderately lit and used for children and other members of the family. Southern side receives the least sunlight and serves as servant quarters. The family gathers to relax on the backside building. The unmarried daughters mostly stay in the low lit backside house, keeping them away from public view.

Climatic design: Most part China had heavy winds blowing across the north in winter and hence the northwestern walls are higher than other walls to protect the inside building from damage. Raised northwestern walls provide protection from storm and dust. The roof had eaves curving downward allowing the rainwater to flow across and not downward. The rooftops were ridged to provide shade in summer and more warmth during winter. In North West china the building had a longer span across North West axis. In northeast china where the weather is cold larger courtyards were built allowing more sunlight to warm the house.

Some courtyard houses:   yuan tianjing Siheyuan! Tianjingyuan (sky-well courtyard house)
Yikeyin (seal-like courtyard house), Shikumen (courtyard house with stone gate), Beijing courtyard Yuan-Ming-Qing

Roman courtyard houses

Roman dwelling types falls under four broad classifications namely; Domus, Insulae, Villa and Palatium.

The roman courtyard houses are usually built around an “atrium” and were known as Domus meaning domestic. The atriums are expansive space, lavishly furnished usually housing an altar for their gods and ancestral spirits and a safe to place their valuables.


The Domus typically belongs to the wealthy middle class of ancient Rome and were built in the urban setting. The Domus of the elite class had elaborate decorative and inlay works in marble with paintings on the walls. Sometimes an entire wall is painted. Besides owning a Domus inside the city most of them also had a “villa” outside.


The layout of a Domus had multiple rooms, indoor courtyards and gardens. The atrium is usually the focal point of a domus. A vestibulum or an entrance hallway leads to the atrium with the rooms leading off the atrium. On the façade of many o f the urban houses are shops facing the street. Some of the houses especially the houses belonging to the wealthy class had two separate building connected by a passageway. Around the atrium are the family’s main rooms, smaller rooms, study and the dining or a triclinium.

Architectural elements

Vestibulum or an entrance hallway or a porch in many houses leads to the main structure.

Atrium is the central part of the house something akin to a lounge where guests are entertained. The atrium has a high ceiling with a part of the ceiling called compluvium open to the sky. The central roof opening is typically square or rectangle and the roof is slanted d to allow the rainwater to drain inward.

Impluvium: In the centre of the atrium on the floor is a shallow rectangular drain pool to collect rainwater and drain them. They are lined with marble.

Fauces: There are fauces or passageways across the length of the rooms between the atrium and the rooms.

Triclinium or the ding hall is a large hall leading from the atrium into the building. It has three couches where the guests may relax after a sumptuous meal offered by the host.

Peristylums are small open to sky features found across many areas or segments of the house.

Culina or the kitchen is usually a poorly lit, small area where the servants work.

Exterior features: Sloping roof, columned porch or peristyle, exedra – a domed semicircular recess, Ostium or an office space and taberna or shops in urban settings are some of the exterior features.

Back of the house had a small garden surrounded by a columned passage around which are the bathrooms, kitchens and the summer dining rooms.

Examples: Some of the examples of a Domus are; House of the Vettii, House of the Faun, House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, 1st C BCE


Roman villas are more elaborate versions of domes built for the upper class. They are built around a series of courtyards, usually decorated with elaborate frescos and mosaics. Villas typically comprise of summer and winter wings. They are built in picturesque countryside or rural setting.

Examples: Hadrian’s villa, Tivoli, 2nd c Villa del casale, Piazza Armenia, sicily, 4th c Palatium


Palatium is the emporer’s official residence on the palatine hill in dome, variously called Domus Augustana, Domus Flavia, Domus Aurea or Domus Severana according to the family that lived there. The palatine hill became the exclusive domain of the emperor at the end of the 1st C.


Insulaes are roman apartment buildings built in urban settings, usually belonging to the poor and the lower middle classes. Mostly rental spaces let out by the affluent, they were tightly placed repeating apartment units with poor lighting and ventilation.

Examples: Insulae on via di, Diana, Ostia, 2nd C; Insulae of Jupiter and Ganymede, 2nd C

Roman Dwellings
Chinese Dwellings
Columned porch at the entrance
An elaborate entrance gateway
Exteriors were more open with shops on the outside in urban setting and porches in villas
Exteriors are enclosed, solid with high courtyard walls protecting the family’s security and privacy
Shops in the front
Mostly only residential
Large atrium with a part of the high ceiling open to sky
Large courtyards more open to the sky
Many small openings in the ceiling
One or more courtyards
No separate area for servants, they usually slept on the floor outside the masters room
Separate servant quarters
Most spaces were open to public view
Private rooms for young unmarried women
A shallow pool in the central atrium
No evidence of rain water collection
An altar for gods and ancestral memory in the atrium
Ancestral memory kept in the main building
Evidence of multi storey buildings seen in urban settings
Usually only the backside building is allowed to have multiple storeys limiting to two storey

Cite this Comparison between the Eastern and western approaches to design

Comparison between the Eastern and western approaches to design. (2016, Sep 04). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/comparison-between-the-eastern-and-western-approaches-to-design/

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