The Courtyard Apartment

Some of architecture’s most basic building designs are a series of letter shapes: there’s the L-shaped building, perfect for building out an urban corner. There’s the T-shape, a front facade with a trailing hallway. And there’s a Chicago classic, the U-shaped apartment building.

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The U-shape confers several advantages on the building. It allows a developer to build two full wings all the way out the edge of the lot, while creating a courtyard space in the middle. The courtyard space guarantees that, no matter what goes up around your building, light and air will always reach the apartments. The courtyard itself can become a great amenity, serving as a beauteous passageway, an urban garden, a shared lawn, or a secluded place of tranquility and beauty.

For these reasons, the U-shaped courtyard apartment building is extremely common in Chicago. They come in all sizes, colors, and flavors. The buildings can be elaborately ornamented…

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…or utterly plain.

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Likewise, the courtyards themselves can be a pure, untainted lawn….

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…or an incredibly elaborate garden.

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Sometimes, the architecture itself is the attraction…

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..and sometimes it’s just a backdrop for what’s happening on the ground.

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Courtyards can be long and narrow…

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…or impressively wide.

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They can be defined by buildings as short as two or three stories…

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…or by buildings as tall as you care to go.

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Sometimes they’re just a space you pass through on your way home…

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…while others invite you to linger and relax.

Casa Bonita Condominiums

Some are open to the street, relying on psychological barriers to keep out intruders…

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…while others have had more direct obstructions added over the years…

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…and some were designed with seclusion in mind right from the start.

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The courtyard can even be defined by more than one building:

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And that building can be clad in any architectural style, from Spanish Revival to Tudor Gothic to MidCentury Modern.

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It’s an incredibly versatile concept, adaptable to changing times and tastes. And the power of numbers allows great ornament and elaboration; in a city whose everyday architecture can be Spartanly plain, courtyard apartments are often among a neighborhood’s most noteworthy and beautiful buildings.

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