Amid times where the streets are silent and interaction is frozen in quarantine, the balcony has emerged as an unlikely architectural hero providing the inhabitants an escape. An underrated extension of our living spaces; to sit in the warmth of the sun, take a breath of fresh air or observe the streets of our city makes the balcony an activated space amongst a community of other balconies. Especially in times of the pandemic, there is a real sense in which it enables us as a community to participate in the world outside beyond our four walls. Fairly simple and functional in design, the balcony’s social function goes way back. Balconies essentially act as “Eyes on the street”, a famous phrase Jane Jacobs coined to describe the significance of active street life for the vitality of neighborhood community/safety.
In the last few months to stall the spread of the COVID 19 pandemic, many countries worldwide have issued lockdowns with many inhabitants being confined to isolation. The balcony has provided a social platform for reviving the collective spirit of the city. Whether it be inhabitants playing music, dancing, singing the national anthem, or celebrating medical workers for their service. The resurgence of the balcony reveals much about how human behavior adapts to the architecture available during times like these. Across the world, we see these practices which naturally encourage us to look outside the world for a connection. The reason may be that this simple architectural element provides a threshold that holds relief between public and private life. This can perhaps inspire us to design such in-between spaces that prove to be valuable in times like these.
Along with its cultural and social role, a balcony surely has a pragmatic role as the house’s environmental filter. Historically its origins come from Persia and Egypt. It had a ceremonial function where people of power and status showed themselves. In other cases, it was a public theatre of the streets where people participated in the viewing of processions and events. Mary Shepperson, an urban archaeologist pointed out that the balcony when traced back to its ancient root in Mesopotamia was built as a way to provide shade on the streets from the harsh heat. In the Arab world, the ornamental mashrabiya style balconies were built both as a way to provide ventilation and to adhere to the Islamic principles of privacy. The water city of Venice was also famous for its balconies which provided fresh air in a dense environment.
But in many cases, balconies and outdoor private spaces are poorly designed in dense areas often being absent or an afterthought in the design. For many apartment dwellers, the balcony is the sole green property they own where they grow flowering plants in place of a detached house with ready access to a front lawn. Since the pandemic, the domestic home’s role has drastically shifted from merely a shelter to a place where design demands flexibility in terms of work and school. A prolonged stay indoors can take a toll on one’s mental health, reminiscent of the “sick building syndrome”. According to a YouGov survey, about 53% of homebuyers chose outdoor space as the single key feature in a new home after parking and energy efficiency. This indicates how people value open green space whether it’s a patio, terrace, or yard, and especially a balcony which has become a precious lockdown space in recent times.
Poorly designed balconies can risk becoming unused storage spaces given the advantages it can offer the inhabitants. Standing balconies common in European cities, often called Juliet “faux” balconies are built just for a person. This can however limit interaction and discourage longevity of its use. Designing recessed or cantilevered balconies covered with glass can ensure shade or protection from the wind. Rather than making it cramped in terms of space, designers need to rethink it with generous width and a depth ranging from 6ft to 8ft fit enough for a couple of chairs and a garden. Sou Fujimoto’s design philosophy offers an architecture where the indoors feel like the outdoors and vice versa which is a spirit that the balcony captures perfectly. Engaging with the outdoors whether it be taking a walk or going to the park is important. To have such spaces at our disposal in our living spaces are important.
If anything the 2020 pandemic has given us insight into the little details we may overlook in architecture and cities such as balconies or sidewalk widths. Value for open space as simple as balconies and terraces within the abode is expected to increase given the situation. Balconies increase a home’s quality of life by providing a space to take in views, soak in the weather outside, or grow a garden. Urban planners and architects are tasked with refining the details of our cities and homes with commodities we deem important as a result of quarantine.
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- Origoni, M., and Origoni, C., 2020. A Brief History Of The Balcony, From Ancient Persia To The COVID-19 Pandemic. [online] Domusweb.it. Available at: <https://www.domusweb.it/en/architecture/2020/04/03/a-brief-history-of-the-balcony-from-ancient-persia-to-the-covid-19-pandemic.html> [Accessed 9 September 2020].
- Poon, L., 2020. A Lesson from Social Distancing: Build Better Balconies. [online] Bloomberg.com. Available at: <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-20/lesson-from-coronavirus-build-better-balconies> [Accessed 9 September 2020].
- Blonder, N., and Bereznyak, M., 2020. 8 Tips For Designing Balconies That People Will Use. [online] Livable. Available at: <https://www.livabl.com/2017/11/8-tips-designing-balconies-people-will-actually-use.html> [Accessed 10 September 2020].
- Spittles, D., 2020. Balconies – Thinking Outside The Box. [online] Galliardhomes.com. Available at: <https://www.galliardhomes.com/investor-information/investor-guides/guide/balconies-thinking-outside-the-box> [Accessed 11 September 2020].