by Kostis Velonis
A balcony calls upon us to escape without having to flee from home
The balcony and the spacious veranda is the place where the drama of the interior can be derailed and diffused in the broader external environment. Burdened with family obligations and refusing to accept the dramaturgical restrictions of a theatre-room, we lean on the banister and daydream of ‘another life’. A balcony calls upon us to escape without having to flee from home.
The balcony with its mechanisms of providing shade on hot days and a refuge for those wishing to avoid the family melodrama, is almost a rule in Mediterranean architecture but almost absent from the more northern countries.
No one is likely to dispute the fact that the predominance of apartment blocks in post-war Greece, particularly in the cities, as a sustainable answer to the problem of housing an increasing, shapeless population led to the deterioration or even the annihilation of the natural landscape. However, in the case of apartment blocks the notion of ‘upgrading’ the landscape within the city is associated with the private space of the balcony rather than the shared garden outside the building’s main entrance.
By the end of World War II and after the Civil War every modern housewife dreamed of moving into a flat, since the newly-built complex offered comforts that an older house could not match. A flat gives you central heating, hot water, indoor toilet facilities, lower running costs, fire-resistant materials, a modern kitchen, ergonomic storage spaces, and remains impervious to changes in the weather. It shapes a new housing model based on the demand for modernisation. Until the 1970s, all social classes in Greece sought to become ‘civilised’ by opting for apartments—each class on its own terms, of course—with their small balconies and huge verandas. Nevertheless, this newfangled access to the environment through balconies in the 1940s and 1950s did not seem to convince certain conservative social groups.
If apartment blocks were seen as the quickest and cheapest solution for housing the lower classes in the cities, in terms of both construction and urban planning, the luxury of a house in a garden city did not remain an objective only for the affluent. The rational option of a flat, in the sense of healthier living conditions, is disputed as long as it is not combined with a return to nature. Stamatia D. Mastroyannopoulou, expressing the Christian moral values in her book Realm of the Home, which is meant as a bible for pious housewives among similar publications, believes that “the best house is the so-called ‘solitary’ one. It should be detached, and have some space for a garden, if only a small one”. She goes on to say: “So let us not envy those who rent flats in apartment blocks, because in addition to never having a quiet moment they lead an unhealthy life”. The little house in the garden city is recommended for proletarian families, since “outdoor work will always be the best antidote for those who work in factories”.
It is fortunate that developers, who are usually blamed for the slipshod way in which Athens was built, envisaged a typology whereby one could create a second place of habitation par excellence; the concept of the garden was concisely reflected in the idea of spacious balconies. In this way the former rural populations that moved into the city found an indirect solution to their identity crisis in a space where they could replicate village life within the safe conditions of urbanisation; the village yard’s honeysuckle became a creeping plant between the drying clothes on the clothesline. This almost exclusively Greek generosity in apartment design was combined with the retiré practice—the gradually recessed top floors—and could replicate the effect two or three times in the same building.
For Greek families, this access to public space from a certain height, with the balcony or the deep veranda of a retiré flat as the outer boundary, provides a parallel place of habitation where the extrovert nature of relaxation and chatting with friends and neighbours ends up generating and sustaining sociability. This sociability extends beyond such gatherings to include chats with the chubby housewives on neighbouring balconies, thus reproducing the custom of village gossip. A retiré flat is the quintessence of isolating oneself from the bustle of the city.
Between the spaces for exclusively private living and the provocatively open veranda we can observe certain degrees and variations. The shade turns the veranda into a space protected from the unpleasant and undesirable view of the city and makes it possible to create a rural Eden within the micro-scale of the apartment’s functional layout. Even the colours of the shade, usually green, yellow or orange, reveal the unconscious correlation with the green of nature and the bright colours of the sun, whose life-giving effect is essential for the household’s physical and mental health. The tastes of the prospering middle class of the 1970s follow the commands of modernity, and the shades now sport decorative patterns in tune with the psychedelic fad.
The balcony as a spatial boundary of privacy serves as a forum for information gathering, a place from which a housewife can survey male-dominated public life. There is a difference between a window and a balcony. The window is a tool for reverie, but one in which the female observer is distanced from the external environment, concealed behind or between the curtains. On the balcony, discretion is absent. The aggressive nature of the balcony and the defensive one of the window or the skylight are eloquently reflected in the representations of Western painterly tradition, which find their special parallel in the art of our own Munich School and Greek impressionism. For many years we used to take it for granted that behind a neat balcony there was a diligent housewife, a chubby Greek mother who watered her plants and enjoyed feeding her children there in the summer months. Yet while in the early decades the emphasis was on flowers and decorative trees, in recent year verandas have come to include plants important for nutrition. The spirit of the times calls for economising through the organic growth of vegetables, and more importantly through a general new approach in the design of our habitable zones.
Today, the veranda acquires more significance as a place that carries the seeds of ecological vigilance, if only in a quixotic way. Among the bamboo furniture with the comfortable cushions and the lanterns, the pots with baby tomatoes, basil and spearmint but also the corners with the flowers and cactuses echo that long-lost notion of living in a garden-city villa. The microcosm of the veranda gives the once-docile “manageress” of the house an opportunity to subvert the patriarchal structure. Against the backdrop of a bankrupt public sphere, this nature-in-the-house comes as the vengeance of our home and seeks to break down the built urban environment into scattered gardens.
This is an excerpt from a text published in the book Sichroni Ellinida, edited by Marina Fokidis and published by Vimadonna, D.O.L., Athens, Greece, 2011.