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What is a Peristyle?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 16, 2024
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A peristyle is a type of courtyard — an area open to the sky and surrounded by walls or buildings — that is enclosed by a columned, covered walkway. Popular in ancient Greek and Roman architecture, Peristyles could be found in temples, homes, and public buildings. Though they were primarily popular in ancient times, modern versions of peristyles can still occasionally be found today.

Peristyles were first seen in ancient Greek architecture. Found in most temples as well as some houses, the peristyle was always an open area, unpaved, and roofless in the interior of a building. The grassy area of the peristyle could have trees or a garden, functional or decorative. Between the open area and the rest of the building was a stone walkway. The walkway was completely enclosed, with the walls of the building on one side, a roof overhead, and evenly spaced columns on the side open to the grassy area.

Columns were normally ionic, which is a typical style in Greek architecture. Ionic columns are best known for the scroll work at the top of the column and the thin flat base on the bottom. Columns also usually had vertical ridges running up their length.

Peristyles in Rome were found commonly in homes called domus. In a domus, the peristyle was the center of the house with the main rooms branching off from this open area. Other rooms might also be connected to the main rooms. The Roman peristyles often held functional gardens fill with herbs, though sometimes gardens were just decorative. Additionally, the walls of the walkway would frequently hold or be painted with artwork.

In more recent times, peristyles became popular designs for convents and monasteries. Matching the same basic design of the ancient peristyles, these areas were called cloisters. The cloisters were attached to a church, separating the monks or nuns from the rest of the world.

More modern peristyles can be seen in a few places around the globe. In one of New Orleans' city parks, a large peristyle, originally built in 1907 as a dancing pavilion, still stands. Additionally, some buildings have variations of peristyles inside. These are not usually the open, grassy areas of the ancient peristyle design, but instead are areas, large or small, which are placed in the center of a room and surrounded by evenly spaced columns. A planetarium in Greece sports a peristyle of this basic design on every floor.

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Discussion Comments
By Mammmood — On Feb 06, 2012

@David09 - That’s a great point. Perhaps that’s the reason too you might see such a design in some college campuses. Could it be that they are calling us all to a reasoned discussion about the nature of truth?

I would have to give them the benefit of the doubt here, although I am more concerned about what goes on in the classroom than without. Professors don’t usually give their lectures out in the courtyard.

By David09 — On Feb 05, 2012

@SkyWhisperer - I think I understand clearly why the peristyle was the design of choice for the early Greeks.

It was an open courtyard. Openness was key to the Greeks’ way of thinking. It was a culture that encouraged dialogue, reasoning and so forth.

I can just see in my mind Plato or Socrates stepping out in this open courtyard, surrounded by students (or hecklers) and attempting to engage in rationale discussion about the meaning of truth.

In school we always learned the important concept that “form follows function” and in that sense the peristyle is appropriate, I think.

By SkyWhisperer — On Feb 04, 2012

You won't just find this design in a peristyle restaurant. You'll see it used in universities too, especially in some state schools that are built using Greco or Roman artichecture styles.

Where I went to college I remember this design being used for the library section. It gave students an open place to mill around and study, and it was decorated with gardens.

It was the perfect, quiet environment and it was especially nice on a warm, sunny day.

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