Peter York: The Way We Live Now

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The Independent Online

Some of you will be in foreign places right now, thinking Anglo-foreign thoughts along the lines of "This is heavenly – couldn't we have one of our own in Droitwich." That's how things happen, from Tuscany and Provence to Droitwich. One thing little British people would like to bring home is the indoorsy-outdoorsy, sun-dappled-ness of life you get in courtyards. Latin European has romantic courtyards, enclosed open spaces inside the house. You look over the glorious valley from your front windows and into the protected light-and-shaded courtyard at the back. North Africa has courtyards too, with columns and arcades, clotted with mystery. Britain has some courtyards. There's an enormous one in Buckingham Palace, and a lovely one at the V&A with a great back elevation 10 times more beautiful than the street front. A great tycoon has one in the middle of his Hollywood Spanish colonial house in Chelsea – imported antique tiles and hand-rusted ironwork.

It'd be lovely to have a bit of courtyardiness at home, but the full-on Tuscan number with its columns and arches, lovely flaking pink or mustard paint, ancient tiles and straggly veg rather depends on things you can't really get at home. The right quality of light for a start. And a house to match – it could look silly in the middle of a Victorian semi. And how could you get it in the middle anyway? Small- and medium-sized Brit houses aren't built like that to begin with. And the planners certainly won't let you enclose the garden.

But the Nineties revolution in garden design gave the world a new set of looks for outside life. Crisp, architectural, tailored greens not floral masses. Sharp concrete slabs, not weathered York stone. Masses of big pebbles and stepping stones (the Big Brother outdoors). And the language of bringing the outdoors in changed too. More crisp green, more severe-looking pots and boxes instead of scenic cache-pots. All this meant that the symbolic modern mini-courtyard had to come. It doesn't have to be that big – it's there making a point. Like a fish-tank. Just looking out there makes you a better person. Particularly if there's a tree, finding its own way to the sky.

Somewhere like this little space, with its distinctly Ikea everyday look, half-courtyard, half porch. The house is clearly no-messing-about modern, but the multiple tree is a household god with its circle of big pebbles, and its protected access to the outside world. The tree works through a decked terrace above, where it presumably gets spready and leafy. There's not much decoration here. A potted plant, a marble step, a view of shoes on shelves. The back view – the rear of the next Lego apartment block in urban Japan – is unlovely. But that indoor-outdoor tree redeems it, and we'll all be getting one soon.

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