Atrium in Architecture: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Melissa Olivieri
The Atrium in architecture has remained a spectacle of beauty over the centuries. In this lesson, we will define this structure, and learn about it's uses, types, and history.

What is an Atrium?

You can think of an atrium as the original 'sun room'. Today we see sun rooms in many homes where people want to soak up sun rays in the middle of winter or maybe grow plants year round.

An atrium is an open-roofed part of a building, though now it more commonly has a glass roof. Although the atrium has evolved throughout the centuries, the basic design has remained the same. The word atrium (also called 'cavaedium') is Latin and refers to an open central court. Just as the left and right atria in our heart are central chambers, an atrium in architecture is a central part of buildings.

Roman style atrium. Note hole in the roof allowing rainwater to collect in the pool below
roman atrium

The atrium was the centerpiece of the home in ancient Roman architecture and is still used today to allow natural light in and connects the protected inside space to the outdoor environment, adding natural beauty to the space. We see this remain constant in the lobbies of many public spaces today.


Atria were originally popular in Roman architecture as a way to allow light and ventilation into other rooms. Their open roof design allowed air to circulate and also rain water to enter and collect in a pool below. This was in a time before electricity, so it was a very important design element from a functional point of view because it added light and airflow to a building, as well as collecting water for human use.

In Medieval Times, the atrium was an open courtyard at the entrance that usually had covered aisles on the sides. They were often found in churches and palaces. In modern buildings they are entry rooms with a translucent roof that allows a connection between the outdoor sky and the indoor space.

Peristyle of the Diocletian Palace in Split, Croatia

The Five Types of Atria in Architecture

There are 5 types of atria in architecture that came about because of the need to collect rainwater and because different architects had different ideas about how to do that while providing a solid support for the roof. The five types are:

  1. Tuscan - this common style had only ceiling beams to support the roof (no columns) with a downward sloping roof (in a sort of 'V' shape) to gather more rain
  2. Displuviate - this style had a roof that sloped outward (like a sort of 'A' shape) to detract most of the rain
  3. Tetrastyle - this style had four columns in a square supporting the beams making up the hole in the roof
  4. Corinthian - this style had many columns supporting the roof, like a peristyle porch
  5. Testudinate - this style actually didn't have a hole, it was roofed over and relied on windows for light instead.

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