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Courtyards in Latin America

December 23, 2017

Your own private Idaho—or Argentina—inside the house


The courtyard, like the Latin American family and in Latin American people have an inward focus. The courtyard is more than a yard, it’s the spiritual soul of the home.

I recall almost every detail of my father’s ancestral home in Mendoza, the wine country of Argentina. The layout, the tile, the woodwork, the planters—even the service quarters with giant sinks for hand washing clothes—remain vivid in my mind.

But not the exterior.

Curb appeal from the INSIDE

Walking around a Latin-American neighborhood has a very different feel than you get in the historic residential areas of the United States. For us, curb-appeal is big, and homes are designed to have it. In Latin America, it’s mostly walls you see, punctuated by doors with elaborate locks. Like the beautiful women of Egypt, veiled. What hides behind those walls, and through those doors is often stunning.

My outside world as a child, was inside those walls, playing and making mischief in the privacy, and security of the courtyards.

There were two, a large one with four huge ceramic-tiled planters and a fountain in the center. The bedrooms, bathrooms, dining room, and parlor ring this elegant enclosure with an exterior walkway, covered by a wide eve.

There was a second courtyard, behind the dining room and next to the kitchen, for the service staff, where cloths were hung, food was prepared, and the maids lived.

It’s the details of all this that I recall. Otherwise, I do not think I could recognize this beloved home if where I were standing in front of it, on the street, today.

The Roman House

I did not know this then, but the typical urban house, in Latin-American cities, derives from the Roman “domus,” of house, from which we get our English word, “domicile.” These homes also had discreet, well-protected exteriors, and inside a sunny, peaceful and parklike “atrium.”

Today, we use this word to describe a glass-covered exterior space, although the original was open air.

Curiously, the courtyard in most Latin-American homes I visit nowadays has a retrofit glazed cover, to allow sun and air, but keep out the rain.

Because the courtyard, or atrium is both interior living area and garden, it’s often the most elaborate and decorated place in the house. A jewel only showcased to family and close friends.

Through these pictures, I aim to convey the feeling of expectation and discovery that lies behind the doors hiding the beautiful Spanish courtyard.

Fernando Pagés Ruiz is ProTradeCraft's Latin America Editor. He is currently building a business in Ecuador and a house in Mexico. Formerly, he was a builder in the Great Plains and mountain states. He is author of Building an Affordable House and Affordable Remodel (Taunton Press).


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