captured landscapes: creating a courtyard with your home design 06/2016

Sketch of the Courtyard Garden at Ryōan-ji, by Colin Flavin


Ever since reading “The Secret Garden” as a child, I have been fascinated by the idea of enclosed gardens. The book, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, describes the mystery and thrill of entering a walled garden after it being hidden for years. At Flavin Architects, we’ve tried to capture the essence of the walled garden by designing diminutive courtyard gardens in many of our homes.


Our design approach is a departure from the classic New England style where the form of the house bears little relationship to the surrounding land. Instead, we favor a floor plan design where the house is laid out into distinct “wings.” for example; the bedroom might be located in a wing that is perpendicular to the main structure of the house. The different wings of the home stretch out into the landscape, coming together to create outdoor spaces that are contained by the house on three sides and are open to nature on the fourth. We love creating this sort of reciprocity between house and land, and witnessing the intimate exterior spaces that the relationship ultimately creates.


Japanese Characters written for Colin by a Monk at the Gardens of Ryōan-ji, Japan


This approach can often be seen in buildings that have expanded over time. A perfect example of this can be found in the designs of Japanese temples and houses. Over time as a temple complex grew with the addition of new spaces, like a meditation hall, dining or sleeping quarters, these new structures were simply added to the original composition. The resulting outdoor spaces created by these additions are wonderfully serendipitous, coming together to form a range of shapes, sizes and orientation. Rather than being a negative, these leftover spaces are inherently more intimate in scale than the surrounding landscape and provide the garden designer with a creative constraint to make a garden specific to that space. The gardens of Ryōan-ji in Kyoto, Japan, where I visited and made a sketch of the floor plan, are contained by buildings on two sides and garden walls on the other two. Remarkably, the garden designer created a miniature ocean with waves of raked gravel and islands of carefully chosen boulders.


Gardens of Ryōan-ji, Japan. Floor plan sketch by Colin Flavin


Our approach riffs off this Japanese tradition by creating surprising outdoor courtyards that capture nature. These spaces ultimately take on a different character, depending on the particular site conditions, orientation to the sun, and Owners preferences.


We don't suggest one particular style for these gardens, but to let the natural surroundings be the inspiration. For example, when the courtyard is abutting a wetland, a good idea is to go with plants that naturally grow in that environment. Orientation is key to garden design. A north facing garden of ferns, moss and some native shrubs, like azaleas, can be spectacular. A south-facing courtyard has many more options. One of my favorites is a gravel or stone terrace to sit in the sun during the shoulder seasons, the surrounding walls of the courtyard capturing the sun’s rays and blocking the wind. The addition of stepping stones can provide access and a defining structure for the garden.


If the courtyard is surrounded by windows that allow the garden to be seen from many vantage points throughout the house, make a garden that looks beautiful year round. The branching structure of many small trees and shrubs are beautiful in the winter, also known as  the “stick season.”


The lesson here is to embrace the nontraditional house formation. Thinking outside the box can lead to the creation of beautiful, unique and unexpected spaces. In the words of Burnett, “If you look the right way, you can see the whole world is a garden.”


Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects