Balcony life

1950's balcony somewhere in Helsinki

I have always loved the idea of the balcony as something special in a home. Not just a place to air your linen but a place for free thoughts. An outside space that is public and exposed to the world: seasons changing, rain falling, people walking by, sometimes glancing up, you sitting up there looking down at the life below.

Balcony and parrot in Barcelona

I remember reading somewhere that Spanish architecture inherited its glazed bay windows and balconies (miradors) from moorish culture: those balconies were the only allowed space for the women of the household to participate in public life. They could discreetly look down at the street from a window that worked like a veil, at the same time hiding and revealing the person in the window. It also worked from the street side – prospective suitors could get a glimpse of the girl in the window.

Balconies have thus a double function. They open the home to the outside world but also create a protected private space above the street. I always thought the first function is more important. It allows the home to breathe (in the summer very literally so). The first time in spring when it is so warm that you can sit on the balcony an enjoy the sun coming back is always a very special moment.

"Pariisintorni" in Arabianranta by Olli-Pekka Jokela shows how it's usually done.

The second function has always been more important in Finnish building and design that focuses a lot on privacy. So even this one public feature in housing architecture should be designed in a way that nobody can see you sitting on your balcony. At some point the building industry realized that by glazing the balcony you could not only give a sense of increased privacy but you could also use the space as an extra living room in the winter. At the same time the size of balconies grew to the size of an average bedroom and was no longer sleekly supported from the building core but rested on thick concrete pillars. This results in new neighborhoods where all house facades are tapestries of enormous glazed balcony towers, the detailing provided by the one company that produces the glazing, the railings etc. It is not only homogenous to the point if dullness but leads to a cold, hygienic cityscape. The part of the building that should be the most interesting – the border between private and public – has turned into repetitive sterility.

But this is not the whole truth. Glass is transparent so everything that happens on these balconies is visible to the outside in a completely new way. The private space expands into the city and instead of one chair and a flower-pot you can see whole furnished rooms. I’ve heard many builders and some city planners worry about this new transparency as if these new traces of life on the balcony are dirty secrets that must be stopped blurting out into the city unexpectedly.

So actually something new and positively anarchistic has also happened with the uprise of glass balconies. All of a sudden people have an extra room, which is a new kind of showroom for living. Some desperately try to block this with curtains and shades but all around the city there is a new kind of dweller to be seen who embraces this new public space. Glazed balconies are furnished proudly with design objects, furniture that didn’t fit anywhere else, flowers and green houses, big comfy sofas, bikes and children’s toys and made into a display of the inhabitants life style, good taste and living comfort. I especially enjoy the balconies in sheltered homes. They are often a collection of memories from a long life and former bigger apartments. The cool and distant post-modernist steel and glass box is transformed into a real home with the help of a spinning wheel from the childhood home and vintage furniture from all decades the inhabitant has lived through. But still, where are all the people who should be enjoying their balconies?

Pink Balcony parade in a sheltered home project in Viikki by JKMM Architects.

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