Barcelona’s ‘green façades’ are disappearing at an alarming rate. A part of this city’s vernacular tradition, the small balconies typically used by apartment dwellers for growing plants are slowly being emptied one-by-one. Plants grown on balconies would sometimes cover entire building façades. Retirees and balcony-gardening aficionados would tend to their plants daily, lovingly nurturing them and trading clippings amongst themselves. Rivalries between neighbors occasionally ensued: Whose hanging vine would be the first to grow all the down to the sidewalk? Whose fig tree would be the first to reach up to the next balcony?
There’s not much else that can be done with a balcony that only cantilevers out a half meter or so, other than offering a place to step out for a smoke or to watch the street go by. Their real purpose is of course to shade the windows below in the summer time, preventing solar heat-gain in flats. If the balconies cantilevered out too much, then they would also shade the windows in winter, which is when heat-gain is more than welcome. The small size of Mediterranean balconies also explains the use of generous French doors leading out to them: in summer, when both doors are fully opened, the interior room is effectively converted into an outdoor space, replete with vegetation.
Ah, the wisdom of vernacular builders. They knew about sustainability before that word was even invented. They always built with locally available materials and never imported what are now called ‘elements’ from afar. They were always somehow able to adapt a standard and unquestioned mixed-use building type –the ‘ordinary building’– to a site of any shape, size and proportion. Vernacular builders knew their work was a collective and not an individual endeavor, and so they abstained from signing their works; from displaying pompous designer-vanity. The history of vernacular building is an oral one, passed down through generations in the local vernacular language and not in Latin or Architectural Gobbledygook. Was it Adolf Loos who said ‘an architect is a bricklayer who has learned Latin’? Was it not Vitruvius who wrote that the only thing that distinguishes architecture from building is the presence of intellectual discourse?
In any case, to get back to the main subject of this written but by no means intellectual dissertation: Now, Barcelona’s balconies are becoming empty and soul-less. The reason? The gradual disappearance of its long-time residents, and the conversion of more and more vernacular buildings into hotels, tourist apartments, and brothels, the only remaining ‘profitable’ uses for these kinds of structures in a global economy in which only profit matters. And that’s when these buildings are still at least being used: another reason for the disappearance of balcony gardens is the growing number of empty buildings resulting from all the mortgage evictions. The number of homeless people in Barcelona has grown dramatically, and with it, the number of dwellings that sit empty. Capitalism? If only. No, this is neo-feudalism.
Would anyone have ever thought that urban vegetation would one day also become a casualty of Spain’s economic crisis?