A Blog by Cabel Sasser

The Courtyard

There was a time when apartment buildings were built with large, spacious courtyards.

The idea is so obvious: it’s not comfortable or natural to live in a packed block of living units. Breathing space and thinking space are important for livability. They make your building more desirable. They make your life more pleasant.

Regrettably, those days are long gone. You know this. To the maximally cash-focused greed-fueled remote-money developer of today, courtyards mean wasted, non-revenue-generating square footage. New apartment buildings offer a sort of “essence of courtyard”, a gentle mist or light sprinkling of an impression of what they once were. Courtyards today pretty much mean “the main entrance is here”. They offer nothing else of value.

Maybe you think, well, it’s not that big of a loss. And yeah, you’re probably right in the grand scheme of things.


This apartment building is near my house. Built in the 50’s and remodeled in the 2010’s, to the credit of whoever rehabilitated the building, they kept the courtyard. And they landscaped it nicely.

As part of the landscaping, there’s a large area of rocks in the center of the courtyard.

And to someone living in this building, this courtyard rock garden became a canvas.

Every time I walk by this building, I pop up the steps to take a peek. And literally every time, there’s something new and wonderful to see, carefully arranged by hand, with the rocks.

Sometimes it’s abstract.

At Halloween, maybe something a little creepy.

At New Years’, a little celebration.

Maybe something beautiful.

Or maybe something super clever.

I think about the time it takes. I think about how you can’t see them from the street and it’s really only a treat for the people in this complex. I think about how much better they make my life.

Sometimes I’ll sit on these rocks for a few minutes and try to relax. With me, that doesn’t last very long, but it still feels great.

I mean, you’re right, it’s just a bunch of rocks.

But a cascading series of wins over decades, from the original architect of this nice space to the landscape company hired by the remodeler all the way to the artist who moved into this building, all led to make this one brief beautiful thing, and that’s the best.

Whatever you’re working on right now, whatever it might be, I ask: try to leave a little space for a courtyard.

And thank you, courtyard artist, whoever you are.

Update: dinner plate

Update 2: backgammon (the dice!!)

Leave a Reply

  1. Leo

    Thank you Cabel

    1. Skip

      A wonderfully eloquent illustration of this concept. Thank you.

  2. Mark

    Loved this 🙂 thank you Cabel.

  3. adamrice

    I grew up in Chicago, and courtyard apartment buildings—usually, I think, with 12 units—are part of the local architectural vernacular. I think they were mostly built before the Great Depression. They’re pretty neat.

    1. Scott M.

      Here’s my Chicago courtyard for ya! Built around 1920, 33 units:

      1. John I. Clark

        Man, that’s gorgeous!!

  4. Dad


  5. SyAn

    Something to make me smiiile today, thank you 😊

  6. Kat

    Loves this so much. Thank you for sharing!

  7. George

    I love everything about this post. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

  8. Sam

    I like the depression on the top of the large rocks. Very cool that it reflects the sky sometimes and not others.

  9. DaveBarnes

    50s and 2010s
    Brought to Your Attention by the Committee to Save the Apostrophe from Abuse

    1. John I. Clark

      Pedants unite! 🤣

  10. jeffmilner

    Thanks for sharing this delightful post. As someone that loves to make pictures with rocks, this hit me just right.

  11. ruurd

    Unrelated, but would you be so kind as to provide an RSS link so that others can use an RSS reader to follow this blog? Thank you.

    1. Clarence Odbody


    2. cabel

      I think it should just work if you drop into your feed reader! Just in case, the actual URL is

  12. Pat

    My understanding is that courtyards only became common, at least in New York City tenement apartments, with the New Law of 1901, which forced developers to give every bedroom a window. Prior to that, entire apartments had no natural light or ventilation, and a single building could span an entire block – without a courtyard.

  13. Sam

    I think you’re being unfair with your characterization of villain and motive in this arrangement.

    The disappearance of courtyards comes from tradeoffs made by policy makers at the state and local level, in addition to the financial considerations made by real-estate developers.

    The location and amount of land where apartment buildings can be legally built has been deliberately restricted for several decades. Additionally cities all over the country have opted to develop rules to maximize the number of dwellings allowed on this intentionally scarce land as a way to “protect” the residents of detached houses (which occupy most of the buildable land in almost every American city) from such buildings and the people who typically inhabit them.

    You will find no end of literature and discussion on this phenomenon. I’m particularly fond of “The Color of Law,” but I can only recommend it if you are willing to get really angry.

    In Portland we also struggle from consequences of state, regional, and local policy encouraging infill redevelopment. Individual parcels of buildable land are typically small, typically 5000 sq ft. Geometrically, it is very hard to include a courtyard on any such property. Mitigating this constraint imposes other tradeoffs.

    1. Walter

      Thanks for a different take on the incentives that can accrete within our legal and bureaucratic systems to encourage land use patterns that deprecate the interests of the working classs

    2. Elizabeth

      In terms of naming the true obstacles to getting nice courtyards these days, let’s also point out off-street parking requirements. The courtyard building would have to use the entire courtyard, plus some, for parking spaces under many cities’ zoning codes. Portland has changed those rules, and the state is now stepping in more directly to prohibit parking minimums for many multifamily residential developments.

      I also want to push back a little on the idea that state, regional and local infill opportunities are making it more difficult to build buildings with courtyards or common open space. Yes, Oregon and some other cities/states are pushing more middle housing with multiple units permitted on lots as small as 5,000 SF and yes, courtyards are not likely to fit on lots that small. But that’s a problem based on lot patterns and the inherent scarcity of vacant parcels in urban neighborhoods, not some specific problem that is being created by state middle housing reforms. The state can’t (outside of an enormous exercise of eminent domain) assemble bigger parcels for development that could fit a courtyard. The rules CAN allow for more smaller lots to fit multiple units, which might be the best we can do in developed urban neighborhoods.

  14. Gabriel Hinojosa

    This was more about this particularly great courtyard but it is always a good idea being generous with common space and green areas, even in high density housing. Specially there. These “unscripted” places are for our imaginations to claim and for our souls to thrive in.

  15. Fill

    That was surprisingly delightful. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Jonathan Lundell

    If you enjoyed this post (and presumably you did if you got this far), go find a copy of Chris Alexander’s /A Pattern Language/. You’ll be glad you did.

  17. Jordan Warshavsky

    Beautiful. Both the courtyard and the musing

  18. Ruth Elliott

    Aw! I love this! Thank you for passing it on. Here’s a song my husband wrote to lift up your spirits:

  19. Gaz Strengel

    What’s the “clever” one? It looks like Musical notes? (Why is that clever?)

    1. Nate Cook

      It’s using the stumps as the heads of each note, with the stones forming the stems, staff, time signature, etc, instead of having a separate design arranged around those stumps.

  20. ccavazos

    From a happy reader, thank you!

  21. The Courtyard - Andrew SamRaja Pandian

    […] — Read on […]

  22. 2023-03-02 Links – Perspectives

    […] Leave a little room for the courtyard […]

  23. Olufunmi I.

    What a meaningful speaking and magnificent artistic stone arrangement.✅ This is indeed a great research work.👍Thanks for this write up.🤝 It really took me down the memory lane.😊

  24. Seymour Hersh investigou quem mandou pelos ares os gasodutos | Quinta do Sargaçal

    […] O pátio Cabel Sasser. […]

  25. sara

    Oh this brought tears to my eyes.

  26. Writer McWriterson

    This is lovely. Thank you for sharing.

  27. Sue Hata

    This is wonderful! It’s near me. I’ll check it out today. Thanks so much for the great photos.

  28. Pam Andrews

    Thank you for sharing! This was beautifully stated. There is something calming and peaceful about being outside. In my hometown there is a huge push to create high density developments. They want to utilize every open space. It’s truly sad.