Cocooning in Balconville

LiMa Housing, Berlin, by Herman Hertzberger. Photo: Axel Burvall courtesy

With lockdown in effect in many parts of the world, and urban streets and squares largely empty, residential balconies have suddenly become the best place for the kind of impromptu, unmediated social contact that makes life in cities so interesting. These building appendages, for those lucky enough to have one, are suddenly our main place for neighbourly conversations, live musical performances, collective protests, and, at precisely 8 PM every evening (in Spain and Italy): applause for health professionals who are selflessly risking their own lives saving others. Even those traditional mini-balconies that provide standing room only and are more often used for growing plants or storing junk are now being enjoyed, and it’s not even summertime. DJs in some cities have set up sound systems and light-shows on their balconies, converting neighbouring balconies into dance-floors. During the day, balconies are places to work out and exercise our bodies (a news item mentions that a French runner training for a marathon ran 40 km on his luxurious seven meter wide balcony).

The balcony is, at the moment, our principal exterior space in the city, yet there are architects who are against these elements, presumably because the junk that is often stored on them –bicycles, cheap outdoor furniture, air conditioning units– clashes with the clean lines of anal-retentive minimalism. But there are also less uptight colleagues who embrace balconies, precisely because they are social spaces that mediate between public and private space. The best known proponent of balconies is Herman Hertzberger (disclaimer: I had him as a professor and worked for him one summer). In his seminal book Lessons for Students in Architecture, several pages are dedicated to the design of balconies. He recommends, for example, making them wide enough so that they can actually contain a small table and chairs, and instead of stretching uniform rows of them across an entire facade he recommends stacking them irregularly and in alternating directions precisely so that neighbourly interaction is able to occur between them.

Using elementary principles of spatial organization it is possible to introduce a great many gradations of seclusion and openness. The degree of seclusion, like the degree of openness, must be very carefully dosed, so that the conditions are created for a great variety of contacts ranging from ignoring those around you to wanting to be together, so that people can, in spatial terms anyway, place themselves vis à vis others as they choose. Also the individuality of all must of course be respected as much as possible, and we must indeed see to it that the constructed environment never imposes social contact, but at the same time we must never impose the absence of social contact either. The architect is not only a builder of walls, he is also a builder of openings that offer views. Both –walls and openings– are crucial.

-Herman Hertzberger, Lessons for Students in Architecture (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1991) p.206

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