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In the course of day-to-day life here, balconies often go unnoticed; they are a part of the cityscape as taken for granted as black-and-yellow taxis or plane trees. Nevertheless, balconies are an iconic feature of Barcelona’s architecture, shaping the city’s space for both passers-by and for balcony owners. A balcony serves both to admit the world into the flat to which it belongs and shut it out, to let in air and light as well as to shade the interior, to provide a place to gaze out on the world and at the same time prevent passers-by from looking directly into the micro-worlds of the lives unfolding inside our homes.
Balconies serve numerous functions, but more and more buildings are going up in Barcelona without them. While they may not be in danger of disappearing entirely, balconies are certainly threatened, according to as eminent an authority as Ramón Massaguer, the Ajuntament’s director of urban planning. “I’m a little pessimistic about the future of balconies here,” he told Metropolitan. “People greatly appreciate balconies, but the tendency among architects is not to put balconies on their buildings.”
Balconies soften the exterior space, and in a city like Barcelona the contrast is great between buildings that have them and those with angled, reflective glass surfaces. The latter seem to slice through the air, aggressively filling the space they occupy with corners and sharp lines. Nevertheless, say experts, glass-clad buildings with their straight edges and flat façades are cheaper to build, and often create a more efficient and profitable use of space. The 22@ district in Poblenou, for instance, is full of them.
David McKay is an English architect who has lived and worked here for 50 years. He and his Catalan partner Oriol Bohigas—their firm is MBM Arquitectes—are among the city’s most prestigious architects. “The glass buildings don’t really fit in, but it’s a cheap way of planning,” McKay told Metropolitan. “A lot of it has to do with salesmanship and the image of modernity. The office wants to be in tune with modern values and they need glass buildings. Also, a wall takes up space that they can’t sell—they’re selling useful inside space—so the narrower and thinner the outside walls are, the better economic return for the investor.
“It’s true that glass technology has advanced an enormous amount,” he added. “But here in the Mediterranean it’s a fight against the elements. If you put glass, you have to put special glass, and the special glass doesn’t give you the real light. The people inside are in tinted glass and can’t really see out.”
Of course, much of the city’s new high-rise architecture is not for residential use. A lot of Barcelona’s space is being filled with office blocks and new hotels. Straight lines and glass predominate in many of these buildings, and in fact they are constructed to minimise contact with the world of fresh air and light. The view from a five-star, high-rise hotel window is one thing that makes it worth 300 euros per night, so big windows are a prerequisite. But if those windows can be opened, many people with suicide on their minds will take a room high up and step out of it, according to McKay, so the windows are designed not to open. “Architects these days are governed by lawyers and insurance agencies to a great extent, which can make it somewhat difficult to do architecture,” he said.
The first wave of of Barcelona’s balconies appeared in the 16th century, and were an architectural feature reserved for those with lots of money, according to Anton Espadaler, author of a lush coffee-table book, translated into English as Barcelona’s Balconies: A Private Space Open To the Public (published in 2007 by the Ajuntament). Originally, balconies were used to divide social classes. Until the beginning of the 16th century, the nobility and the peasants mixed in the street, but after that the well-to-do were increasingly at pains to separate themselves from the common folk.
“In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there was a tremendous amount of street life—many religious observances, a lot of solemn processions that were political and religious, and also many fiestas,” Espadaler told Metropolitan. “In the Middle Ages, the classes mixed in the street at these events, but in the Renaissance they separated. The balcony permitted the nobility to attend events going on in the street without having to mix with the public.”
The balcony as a status symbol was displaced over time, however, by the idea that it promoted good health. This led to a more general demand for balconies in the 18th and 19th centuries. “There’s a saying, ‘Si el sol no entra pel balcó, entra per la porta el doctor’ (‘If the sun doesn’t come in through the balcony, the doctor will come in through the door’),” said Espadaler. “The idea of fresh air and sun became basic, and the balcony began to be a more common feature. Here began the socialisation of the balcony, the use of the balcony as both a public and a private space.”
Balconies also play political and sociological roles in the lives of today’s Barcelona residents. People express opinions to the world at large with banners hung from their balconies (“l’AVE pel litoral”) and when the United States, Britain and Spain invaded Iraq, whole neighbourhoods went out to their balconies at 10.15 each night to raise a racket, beating on pans in a symphony of protest, a united chorus with each person on his or her own balcony. When Barça won the triplet this year, and took a victory ride through the streets, people came out on their balconies to cheer and toss confetti, each in their own private spaces, but united in the celebration of victory.
Less dramatically, but equally important, the balcony is also a place from which to chat with a neighbour across the way, and a platform on which to create a tiny space of natural beauty, to be enjoyed by the owner of the balcony, but also by those passing by. “The balcony is an important part of a building’s façade, and the façade is the frontier between the private and the public,” said David McKay.
Are balconies in danger of disappearing? Perhaps not anytime soon, but Anton Espadaler said he looks at 22@ and worries. “The people who have governed the aesthetic that made 22@ are rationalist architects, and rationalist architects condemn the balcony. It’s an architecture that has its roots in Germany, and which condemns the balcony.
“But I think balconies will survive because they have so much psychological benefit. I would like to see the Ajuntament encourage people to put plants on their balconies. It’s a friendly gesture. True, it also has an aesthetic component and contributes colour, but above all it’s just plain friendly.
“Someone who takes care of a plant on their balcony is not likely to be someone who would shoot you, or do you harm. These little components are really the important things that make a city pleasant to live in.”
Excerpts from Anton Espadaler’s book,
-- The first record of the Catalan word balcó is in the 1612 edition of the Diccionari català-valencià-balear (Catalan-Valencian-Balearic Dictionary).
-- When Don Quixote arrives in Barcelona, he goes to Antonio Moreno’s house who, once the adventurer from La Mancha has been disarmed, takes him “out on to the balcony situated in one of the city’s main streets where everybody could see him, and where everybody, both young and old, stared at him as if he were a monkey.”
-- Many of the first balconies were built by modifying old Gothic windows, leading to great changes in house façades. Eventually, many such windows were converted into balconies and as a result, austere medieval façades took on a relevant, decorative richness.