When author and editor Charmaine Chan first went to the Cheong Fatt Tze heritage building in Penang in the late 1990s, little did she know that it would leave a lasting impression on her.
“A few years after restoration work was completed on the mansion, I visited and found myself in the main courtyard. There, in a spot considered the feng shui heart of the house, I felt something like electricity course through my body.
“I’ve visited the house a handful of times since then but never had that experience again. About 12 years ago, I painted my village house in Hong Kong the same shade of indigo that gives the Unesco world heritage site its nickname, The Blue Mansion. It is a daily reminder of the buzz I felt in that world contained within those walls,” shares the Malaysian-born Chan, 52, via email.
Currently based in Hong Kong, Chan is design editor at the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and three-time winner of the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong’s Press Awards. She began her journalism career in Sydney, furthered it in Tokyo and moved to Hong Kong in 1997 to join SCMP. Chan’s writing focuses on architecture and design in Asia.
Recently, she wrote a book entitled Courtyard Living: Contemporary Houses Of The Asia-Pacific, which explores 25 residences across the region. The 272-page book features homes in Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, India, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. The chapters go according to courtyard function, and highlight how contemporary courtyard designs influence spatial living experiences.
The idea for the book came about due to the need to fill a gap, explains Chan.
“Five years ago, after decades of being away, I was thinking of moving from Hong Kong back to Sydney, Australia, where I grew up, and started dreaming about the type of house in which I would live. I wanted to explore 21st-century courtyard houses, but couldn’t find any books on the subject that really helped,” says Chan, who holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney, and an MA in Japanese Studies from SOAS University of London.
“There were lots of academic papers about the history of courtyard houses and many books about traditional Chinese quadrangle houses, Moroccan riads and Balinese courtyard compounds, but nothing that addressed my needs. So I decided to fill the gap and write Courtyard Living: Contemporary Houses Of The Asia-Pacific, and build a courtyard house,” she adds.
Chan visited about 50 houses in the region and chose 25 that best demonstrated why courtyards remain popular in the 21st century.
“All the houses in the book have internal areas open to the sky, and all enjoy natural light and ventilation because of their courtyards. But I selected each home for specific courtyard functions in five broad areas. Of course, the houses also had to be aesthetically pleasing and special in other ways.
“Many had interesting back stories, for example, the (Gomati) House, which was designed with two courtyards – in part to save the mature trees on the plot. It replaced an old, crumbling house whose rubble ended up being part of the new residence,” adds Chan.
The book is divided into five chapters – privacy; social spaces; sightlines (uninterrupted lines of vision); air, light and shade; and blurring boundaries.
“I wanted to organise the book in a way that would help readers understand the main reasons people still build courtyard houses today, apart from using interior voids to illuminate and ventilate rooms naturally,” she explains.
Among Chan’s favourite courtyards is the AW House in Jakarta. “I loved Andra Matin’s take on Le Corbusier’s architectural promenade concept, which saw the Indonesian architect choreographing movement around AW House so that the courtyard is always the focus.
“As you proceed up or down ramps connecting the floors, your gaze falls on a striking moringa tree in the stone courtyard, which shifts the focus inwards, away from the busy road outside. The tree is the most memorable piece of art in a house full of impressive works,” she shares.
Although each property is unique, two in particular touched Chan due to her Chinese heritage.
“Courtyard House in Taiwan appealed to me because it enabled three generations of a family to live independently, but together, under one roof. The residence, built on the rooftop of a stocking factory, was architect Tze-Chun Wei’s 21st-century version of a Chinese quadrangle house, and, among other things, it updated Confucian hierarchical rules.
“Unlike in the past, when the eldest family members would have lived farthest from the entrance – because that was the safest spot – in this house, Wei’s parents wanted rooms closest to the kitchen and dining area, which were by the main door. The courtyard was the centre of the house but the dining area is its heart because everyone came together for meals, which the architect said was ‘a must’,” adds Chan.
Another residence that often occupies her mind is the AN House.
“I often think about a house in a Chinese enclave of Jakarta close to a flashpoint in the 1998 race riots that killed over 1,000 people. The Chinese owner wanted ‘lungs’ in the middle of his house so that, if anything like that happened again, he could keep everything closed on the outside, but stay put and be able to breathe inside. Courtyard houses were built for defensive purposes in the past and continue to be desired by those who feel vulnerable,” she says.
Through her book, Chan’s wish is to change the way people view courtyards.
“I hope architects and their clients see, in the houses I’ve chosen, the different ways in which people interact with the great outdoors, be it paved, stepped, watery, abstract or even behind glass.
“I now also understand better the freedom that comes from privacy and security, and those are features of most courtyard houses,” she ends.