Atria and Courtyards

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Ever since we had the ability to construct large multi-story structures, atria and courtyards have been a popular and widely-used architectural feature. Why is this feature so popular and where did it originate?

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Starting back in classical Greek and Roman times, multi-story residences were constructed around an interior space.

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This style continued into medieval times both with city dwellings and fortified castles.

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This design element continues today in shopping malls…

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hotels…

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office buildings, and schools.

Atrium of 450 Grand Concourse, Building C of Hostos Community College

Architects have many reasons to include these interior spaces, starting with light and openness.

However, I suspect that the origin and continued use comes down to basic engineering: large loading-bearing floors are difficult and were for many years impossible. Multi-story floors could only span limited distances between walls. By including courtyards and atria, it is possible to construct impressive facades without addressing these engineering issues.

Only in modern times have large solid structures become possible.

Here is one notable exception. The Minoan palace at Knossos, Crete from 3-4,000 years ago, looking very contemporary with it large expanses of multi-story spaces.

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