Curb appeal from the inside: The Latin tradition of courtyards and private spaces

Sep 27, 2019

I recall almost every detail of my father’s ancestral home in Mendoza, in the wine country of northwestern 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 I remember almost nothing about the exterior of the house.

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

My 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.

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

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Hacienda Uzhupud, near Paute.

It’s the details of all this that I recall today. 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 park-like “atrium.”

Another entry way.

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, many of them in Cuenca and Quito, have a retroffited glazed cover to allow in 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.

Unlike the homes Latinos build with exterior barriers that are difficult to cross, Anglo homes come with an invitation to admire the outside, to walk up to, and even knock on the front door. These architectural preferences come courtesy of deep cultural biases. It’s tough to get inside the Latin American home. You may wait a long time for an invitation. But once you step past the threshold, you may feel like part of the family. In many respects, you probably are. Need bus fare? ¡Ningun problema!

Inside a Cuenca B&B.

In contrast, Anglos offer a ready smile, and a quick dinner invitation. But don’t think you can come back the next day without an appointment, or ask a favor, because — no — you’re not part of the family! The walls in Latin culture don’t come at the property line, our walls are set just inside — right behind the curb appeal and the “welcome” sign. Intimacy often eludes gringos, while for Latinos it comes effortlessly. Within the well-protected courtyard, there’s no need for a personality facade. There’s no fear of intimacy, because unless you are part of family, you won’t even get to peek inside.

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

Courtyard in a Cuenca hotel, formerly a family home.

Courtyard balcony in a family home.

Casual family space.

A glass roof keeps the rain out of this U.S. courtyard.

This courtyard was converted into a restaurant.

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