Peristyle in Architecture Explained

Many of our spaces today are molded from some ancient space planning technique. Over the course of history, many of these have evolved to fit new situations and innovations or have been removed completely. Here we explore atriums and figure out what exactly “peristyle” is and if they’re still applicable in modern day spaces.

“Peristyle” from the Greek words “peri” meaning “around”, and “stullos” meaning “pillar”, translate to “columns enclosing a space.” They are commonly found in ancient temples and wealthy Roman home gardens. The columns often support a roof, or eaves allowing people to walk around the courtyard or temple shaded.

Image from Pinterest

Difference Between Atrium & Peristyle

To fully understand these concepts, we have to take a quick history lesson back to Ancient Rome. The houses of the wealthy were called “domus”, in which they had both spaces “atrium” and “peristyle.” 

The atrium was the first common room that greets you entering a wealthy Roman domus. It is a square enclosed space with an opening on the ceiling and small shallow pool beneath it (the impluvium)  to catch rain for domestic use. Surrounding the atrium are the bedrooms. 

Images from Banister Fletcher’s “History of Architecture”

Further, they had several kinds of atriums: Tuscan (without columns), Tetrastyle and Corinthian (with columns at the center). (4)

Image from Roman domestic architecture (domus) (article) | Khan Academy

The hosts would normally entertain public guests in the atrium, while the Peristyle Courtyard out back was for more private events of the family. “Peristyle” literally translates to columns around a space. However, in the domus’ setting, it is often found in the backyard garden, carrying a roof for a shaded walkway. Around this courtyard are more utilitarian rooms like the kitchen, dining room, servant quarters, toilet, etc., which can have a body of water in the center or just be a plain grass lawn. (1-4)

Image from “A Global History of Architecture” by Francis D.K. Ching

The atrium was considered the main part of the home, as it is where guests are entertained, it was also the most lavishly decorated. In fact, one of the famous houses in Pompeii, had the mosaic of Alexander the Great, “The Battle of Issus” as their wall art! (5)

Image from The Interior (Atrium and Peristylium) of Pansa’s house at Pompeii, Restored | ClipArt ETC (

In the image above, you can see the peristyle courtyard behind the atrium, which can be drawn with curtains to make a private garden, hidden from public view for the noble homeowners. (6,7)

As we see later on in the Medieval Era, both atrium and peristyle were combined in the cloisters and basilicas. It was a space you entered before the main church’s nave, an open courtyard from the ground up (no ceiling) with columns around to serve as shaded passageways. (1) As the history of architecture progresses, this more or less has become the definition of our atriums and peristyle spaces. Therefore we will analyze both in the modern setting.

Image from “A Global History of Architecture” by Francis D.K. Ching

Benefits of Peristyle & Atriums

The “Courtyard” concept is a common design technique architects will use to introduce natural light and ventilation to more rooms in a building. This not only gives you savings on your electrical bill, but using the elements in your favor also greatly benefits the occupant’s health. 

Image from A Brutalist House in Costa Brava is Discretely Embedded into the Natural Landscape | Yatzer

Our bodies for centuries depended only on the light from the sun, moon, stars and campfire. Only in the last few years have we introduced electronic light bulbs, in which our systems are not used to being exposed to uniformly lit surfaces past sunset or worse, 24/7. 

We respond better health wise and mentally when exposed to signs of nature: the changing color of the skies, rustle of leaves, sway of trees and seeing movement of life! It is proven that this stimulates our brains. Visually seeing nature also promotes our health and well-being, which is why many hospitals are redesigning to incorporate garden views in their rooms.

Natural ventilation also plays a big factor in designing healthier homes, especially  in the face of the pandemic. Atriums or peristyle courtyards allow “cross ventilation”, having two opposite walls of the room receiving natural wind, getting regular air exchange and good air flow. Applying the Roman concept of having a water body in the center, this can further cool the air before entering those indoor spaces around it.

Artificial ventilation through air-conditioning systems supply filtered and “cleaner air”, provided it is maintained regularly. This means changing the filter and having it fully cleaned quarterly. Otherwise it can harbor bacteria, or if ventilating one enclosed space with an infected person, the same air becomes infected and circulates to all people in the room. AC systems can be costly, take up floor space and actually produce more heat in the environment with the amount of energy it takes to generate cool air. 

However, when deciding to place an atrium or courtyard in a building, one must constantly check back and forth with how it will affect the surrounding spaces. Will the wind blow in? Will it get too hot? Will it be too noisy when activities are happening? Will privacy be compromised when functions of spaces are adjacent? (8)

When planned correctly, the play of light and materials can create captivating views from multiple spaces within the building.

Images from Modern House With A Peristyle located in an oak-tree forest that is homogenous in its structure – CAANdesign | Architecture and home design blog

Modern Peristyle-Atriums 

Do atriums and peristyles still have a place in modern day spaces? 

They greatly do! 

In fact, the term “atrium” now also describes another building solution often used in commercial malls and office buildings. Atriums can also mean buildings with 2 storeys of more, having an open space from the ground up.We often see these in malls that have an event space below and a huge skylight on top.

At first this may seem like wasted space, where shops can be built, generating profit instead. However, this generates the most foot traffic as the main gathering place in the building. While circumnavigating the atrium to arrive at your desired store, you might find some intriguing shops along the way, which is highly in favor of any mall developer.

For offices, this design strategy also allows for transparency between floors to see the entire building activity happening at once while allowing natural light to penetrate the interiors. Using reflective surfaces and proper sizing of openings per floor (to control the intensity), atriums can bring natural light to the lower floors, lowering energy costs on artificial lighting and thermal control (air-conditioning in less heat gain, or intentionally bring heat in for cooler climates). 

With this modern definition, atriums can be further configured in many ways:

Image from Atrium | WBDG – Whole Building Design Guide

Modern day atriums allow us to experience the outdoors while being shielded from harsh weather conditions such as rain and snow. What becomes a designer’s challenge here is ensuring the right orientation and glazing is used for the skylight. Specifying the right thickness for durability is important as well as the type of glass for non-excessive heat gain. Another issue can be getting the right amount of light in the upper floors while using reflective strategies to let the light in deeper below. (8)

Image from Atrium | WBDG – Whole Building Design Guide

With the engineering innovation of the cantilevered (or hanging) beam, the columns that create the “peristyle” are no longer needed and are now optional. Some may prefer the peristyle be removed, having freed up more floor space and saving cost on manual labor. However, the visual and psychological effect of columns lined up still has its advantages when the space or function allows it.

You can check out our article on “Colonnades in Architecture Explained”. Otherwise it’d be too heavy a history lesson to jampack it all here. 

Ancient styles influenced by several cultures in the mediterranean

The Roman domus is the most studied example of residential architecture in history. However the concepts of atriums and peristyle were present way before this model, as Roman architecture was greatly influenced by several cultures in the mediterranean.

The peristyle or colonnaded garden was actually inspired by the gardens found far back in Ancient Egyptian temples. (9)

Image from “A Global History of Architecture” by Francis D.K. Ching

Meanwhile, the peristyle for the Ancient Greeks referred to one of many many column layouts and configurations for their temples. 

“Peristyle” meant a row of columns surrounding the space, while “Dipteral” meant 2 rows of columns around instead of one. “Prostyle” means columns at the front facade only, while “Amphiprostyle” means columns at the front and back (none on the sides, or it would be peristyle). Anything with the term “pseudo” meaning “false” meant only half a column was attached to a solid wall to give the peristyle effect. (9)

Image from Columniation. 1. Peristyle. 2. Diastyle. 3. Prostyle. 4. D… | Flickr

Summary – Solutions to the Sick Building Syndrome?

The biggest advantage atriums and peristyle have in relation to our built environment is that it provides us a connection to nature. That “‘indoor to outdoor” experience we try to achieve in our modern spaces can be achieved by looking back on our older models of public space. The agoras and forums — marketplaces of the past, greatly enlivened public life in providing safe and comfortable places outdoors.

Both peristyle and atrium encourage natural light and ventilation, while giving a social gathering function.

Atriums have led to our skylights and lightwells, and can be our rain gardens or vertical gardens. 

Peristyle on the other hand can continue to encourage people hanging outdoors comfortably like Harry, Hermionie and Ron or lounge in opulence with the House of Martell in Dorne.

Image from The famous cloisters of Durham Cathedral, as seen in the first two Harry Potter movies – Britain Magazine | The official magazine of Visit Britain | Best of British History, Royal Family,Travel and Culture (

Image from 11 medieval activities for Game of Thrones fans in NYC (

Image from LAE Madrid | We miss you!


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  2. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2016, February 19). domusEncyclopedia Britannica. 
  3. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2017, June 2). atriumEncyclopedia Britannica.
  4. Dr. Becker, J. (n.d.). Roman domestic architecture (Domus) (article). Khan Academy. Retrieved February 2022, from
  5. laured, . (2004, September). Roman Atrium Style Housing. View Page: Roman Atrium Style Housing. Retrieved February 2022, from
  6. Tromp, G. (n.d.). In the roman atrium house plan what is a peristyle? In the Roman Atrium House Plan what is a peristyle? Retrieved February 2022, from
  7. Harding, Ph. D, S. B., & Snodgrass, M. (2015, June 10). The interior (atrium and peristylium) of Pansa’s house at Pompeii, restored. Educational Technology Clearinghouse. Retrieved February 2022, from
  8. Gritch, AIA, T., & Eason, AIA, B. (2016, October 5). Atria systems  . WBDG. Retrieved February 2022, from
  9. Ching, F. D., Jarzombek, M. M., & Prakash, V. (2017). A global history of architecture. John Wiley & Sons.