Thursday, 17 February 2011
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.