atrium ā´trēəm [key], term for an interior court in Roman domestic architecture and also for a type of entrance court in early Christian churches. The Roman atrium was an unroofed or partially roofed area with rooms opening from it. In early times its center held a cooking hearth. After the 2d cent. BC, when the hearth was placed elsewhere, the center of the atrium held a tank (impluvium) to receive rainwater falling through the opening, which also furnished light to the surrounding rooms. In more luxurious and complex Roman dwellings, the private apartments had a court of their own, called the peristyle, and the atrium served merely as a semipublic reception hall. The ruins of Pompeii contain remains of atria in their various forms. In early Christian churches, the atrium was a large arcaded or colonnaded open court, serving as a general meeting place, in front of the church itself, with a fountain used for ablutions in its center. The basilican churches of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan and San Clemente in Rome have noteworthy atria. This type of large forecourt is also a characteristic element of the Muslim mosque. The term also refers to a modern building's central court, an often soaring interior space with a large skylight. Creating a flood of natural light and usually filled with plants, the feature has become practically ubiquitous in contemporary architecture it is used predominantly in commercial buildings.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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