Coronavirus impact: How we forgot and rediscovered our balconies

It started with Italians in self isolation, singing. Then there were people clapping or banging pots, either in protest or support. People have been exercising – one man ran the equivalent of a marathon. Others pull up groceries from the street. One man guided his drone to walk his dog. And Indians have been playing housie.

All these have one location in common – people did it on their balconies. As the world retreats behind home walls, balconies have become the ideal location to remind ourselves that a more public life exists and that one day we will get back to it. Till then there’s the balcony, that space that combines private safety with public visibility in a way that still works in our virus ridden world.

Juliet stood on her balcony to see and be seen by Romeo. When a new Pope is elected he stands on a balcony in the Vatican for the world to see him and for him to bless the world.

Tropical climates encouraged balconies. Himanshu Burte, an architect and professor at IIT Mumbai’s Centre for Urban Science and Engineering, who has taken a particular interest in balconies, points to the verandah that surrounded bungalows: “a balcony is a verandah gone vertical.”

Different types of balconies developed in Bombay. Art Deco balconies sinuously curved around corners. Two storey bungalows had creaking wooden ones where old ladies surveyed colony life. Apartment blocks had boxy balconies, large enough to dry clothes during the day and catch the sea-breeze at nights. Highend structures like the Taj Hotel made elaborate balconies part of their ornamentation.

The chawls that housed the city’s workers combined balconies with landings to create elevated lanes of a kind, from which doors to individual dwellings opened. Neera Adarkar, an architect and expert on chawls, explains there were often two such balcony-landings: “One behind which lead to the toilets, and where water was often stored, and one in front, which became a public space.”

Political discussions developed in these balcony-landings. Spices were dried there and plants grown to recall the village homes left behind. Newcomers to the city slept there, storing their possessions in the pethis kept outside the homes of relatives in the chawls. Romances grew across balconies.

Above all (literally), the balconies of chawls and apartments gave ringside seats to the spectacle of the streets of Bombay. Reports from the Times of India of Ganesh Chaturthi processions, Janmashtami pyramids (where the pots to be broken were strung between balconies) political rallies and parades of winning cricket teams all mention the viewers lined up on balconies. The city watched, and watched itself watching from the balconies.

Yet for all that balconies were a key part of Bombay, modern Mumbai has abandoned them. “I hardly see them anymore,” says Burte. The culprit is city’s intense space crunch, catalysed by the crucial Floor Space Index (FSI) calculation that determines how high builders can build. Because balconies are not counted as part of FSI, builders create them in the knowledge that occupants will quietly enclose them to create another room.

The advent of air-conditioning also affected balconies. They took away their cooling function and, worse, made balconies uncomfortable due to the presence of air-conditioner exhausts, belching heat, throbbing noise and the drip of condensation. Balconies, if they still exist, have become urban wastelands. They are filled with the crippled chairs and broken boxes of our lives, occupied by feral pigeons and only invaded, briefly, by that other increasingly outlaw figure, the addicted smoker. Even more sadly, they can be given over to a household’s marginal members. “In one BHK houses there’s no space for older people, so they often end up sitting on balconies,” says Adarkar. Servants sit on them to snatch a few private moments.

Yet around the world too there has been a resurgence of interest in balconies. A German architect has designed an elevator to put your car on your balcony, a boon in parking starved cities. And Aquaria Grande, an upcoming super premium Mumbai development, rather improbably promises balconies that are also small swimming pools encased in glass, like giant elevated aquariums for humans.

But rather than such gimmicks, the virus has reminded us of the more enduring value of balconies. Instead of exacerbating our withdrawal from the world, the virus has made us realise the value of the public, visible world we took for granted, and still can experience to the extent of the space of our balconies. When the time comes for us to step out in the world again, perhaps we should remember the benefits of our balconies.

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