Thursday, 17 February 2011

The cult of the balcony


On the Avenue Gambetta is a building with a very curious appearance. It is a structure defined solely by its three rows of balconies that completely hide the interiors of the building from street level. In return, those below are also invisible to those living in the apartments above, which have their focal points guided up towards the sky. The balcony is seemingly designed to offer residents an escape from the city.

The balcony in urban environments is not a new invention, but it is something that has slowly changed role. On Haussmanian structures, the purpose of the balcony was to protect the ‘étage noble’ on the second floor from noise coming up from the street, with a second balcony on the 5th floor merely to provide a harmonious balance.

The hygienest movement was the first to give the balcony an additional purpose. The constructions of the architect Henri Sauvage feature a balcony for every single apartment, each invisible from the other, with the goal being to improve the circulation of air, and to encourage people to spend time outside.

This largely practical and decorative feature though has slowly become a feature of fantasy and evasion. This notion of escape is important as it reflects the dreams of the majority of city-dwellers - simply to live somewhere else, ideally in a house with a garden or in an apartment overlooking the sea. The urban balcony now offers the double advantage of giving them a window on the world whilst at the same time hiding the fog of the city behind a mirage of space and greenery.

Balconies are now a key selling point, particularly of new apartments. When old buildings are knocked down, artists impressions of new builds appear in their place, showing families (people texture!) eating breakfast on sunny mornings surrounded by lush hanging gardens. The reality that appears later is somewhat different, although there is often a desire to recreate this artificial world. Look up at these city balconies and you'll see rotting and rusting garden furniture, but very rarely anybody using this equipment.

This dream vision takes us away from our daily lives and into the realm of a holiday existence, but is there any pleasure to be had in taking breakfast above a busy boulevard or in full view of our neighbours? The majority of balconies simply become extra storage space, a park for bicycles and children's toys - or worse still, an additional access point into the apartment for burglars.

The painter Gustave Caillebotte caught the original, more noble role of the balcony in the city. Caillebotte painted a series of enigmatic figures on the balconies of Haussmannian structures in Paris, none of whom were attempting to do anything more than observe the street below them. Ideally the balcony presents the city as a theatre, providing us with a narrow unobtrusive platform to watch the world go by (or have the world watch us!), possibly with a cigarette in hand. In Caillebotte's world the balcony is brought back to its rightful place - as a celebration of the city and not an escape from it.


10 comments:

Cynthia said...

I'd do anything for a balcony! Yet I have a view on more than a 100 balconies (in the courtyard) from my appartment and no one seems to use them!

Genie -- Paris and Beyond said...

What a wonderful review of "balconies" in Paris... When I am in a place that has one, I see myself as one who watches the world below...

Great post, Adam.

Kiki said...

Adam; this is a post 'génial'.... AND I learned about the great site 'une question, une reponse'.... what precious finds, both of them!
I didn't know and puzzled already often about the balconies 'only' on the second and last floor in Parisian buildings. NOW I know why! Thank you so much.
Coming from Switzerland, we always had balconies on 'immeubles' and they are a very important feature. We also DO use them regularly and intensively. We literally LIVE outdoors; we have our meals outside and decorate them with flowers all year round. My sister (one of them) even made a playground for her cats with fine and invisible netting up to the next balcony so that her darlings cannot fall down when they do their bungee-jumping... :)
VIVE LES BALCONS, ICI ET AILLEURS!
Merci encore - and I would never live in any place without a balcony. Mind you, I live in a house with a large verandah and huge garden and no balconies but then I know that I am a very, very spoilt brat!

FotoMarg said...

This is a very interesting post, Adam. The balconies in the first photo are astounding. It is interesting to hear the fantasy and then the reality of balconies. What a pity they aren't used.

Islington hotels said...

Very stylish and modern. The balcony is a crucial part of the bulding, especially when there is a magnificent view to admire.

D Adams Kutch said...

I have a large balcony above the front door of my rural home. It is not used as often as I would like but it's a wonderful place to stand to look over the mountains and valley below. I love my balcony and I am happy that we included it in our house. When we travel I always try for a hotel room or apartment with a balcony, or at least a large window overlooking the square, especially in Paris!

Owen said...

When we lived in an apartment with a balcony, I loved to stand out there watching the world below, from the 18th floor, there was quite a view. But I far prefer our current "balcony"... a big grassy yard with trees and flowers and vegetable garden.

Peter said...

Nice and interesting post, as usual. You may have forgotten the latest major use of balconies: To have a smoke ... as long as that will also not be forbidden! :-)

Adam said...

Ah Peter, someone is speaking here from experience! It's true that this is where the most interesting conversations take place during parties!

sorna said...

My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!


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