Reclaiming Individuality?

The balcony is a transitional element of architecture: a negotiation between inside and outside, between public and private. It is a part of the building but at the same time outside of it. In a residential building the balcony is the allocation of a piece of urban space to an individual inhabitable unit while also acting as an extension of the private over the public realm. It gives both security and exposure.

In Bulgaria, the first balconies appeared in the 18th Century, still under Ottoman rule—they were a private social space, secured but at the same time allowing for observation of the outside world. They were an architectural element often highly decorated and expressing the individuality and social status of its owner. In the beginning of the 20th Century, only privileged wealthy citizens had balconies up until the 1950s when the residential constructions of the communist state made them available to all. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s they became an architectural element defining the aesthetics of pre-fab constructions in the mass planned residential complexes. The new residents of the socialist city thereby were provided with a healthier environment by giving them a piece of the city at home.

Following the fall of the regime in 1989 and encouraged by the lack of regulations on the right to modify a privately owned residence even when it is part of a residential apartment structure, a process started that can be explained as an opportunity to claim the right to express a supressed individuality to the outside world. Many owners took the opportunity to glaze, extend or build on their balconies. Most often appropriated to kitchens or living rooms, extending their space beyond what was provided, balconies also offer all varieties of transitional space: glazed and only connected to the interior with a door outside kitchens, drying laundry space or simply storage sheltered from the elements. This transformed the appearance of the vast residential complexes and smaller inner city streets proving that often occupants have a view different from architects as to how their own space should look and be used.

The way different balconies are glazed and appropriated would reflect their owners’ financial abilities and aesthetic understanding and even if they are simply provisional and executed with as little as to serve a new purpose, they can be a proud statement from their owners. They are rarely the same, it is rather an exception to see a façade with similarly treated balconies nowadays, most patterns and proportions conceived from architects and planners have been eradicated. If the materials are the same, the colours would vary, if a rather widespread white frames are used than variety would be achieved in the mullions arrangement. Practical needs are often given as a reason for such often perceived as monstrous transformation, but it is hard to ignore the reluctance to reach an agreement on as to how to achieve any kind of coherent aesthetic from the outside.

Transformations within the rigidity of the Modernist Project are not unknown. Indeed it is Le Corbusier’s own Cité Frugès in Pessac, in the outskirts of Bordeaux that turned into a notorious example of residents taking over the authority of the architect. Commissioned by industrialist Henry Frugès and built in the 1920s it was a development to provide houses for low income workers and allowed Le Corbusier to build his social experiment of the architecture of the future. There was no interaction between the architect and the future home owners which explains to a certain extent the disagreement as to what a home should be and the many individually led alterations in the houses that changed the estate’s vision. All this led Pessac to be perceived as a failed modernist experiment, or how critics would described it as a rebellious rejection of modernist aesthetic that imposed ideas on how one should live. But more than once it has been argued that modernism only gave the wide frame for everyone to fit in with their needs. Ada Louis Huxtable writing about Pessac argues that rather than remorse in Le Corbusier’s words “you know it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong”, there is a recognition that a process is stronger than a fixed ideology.

I went to Pessac in 2008 unaware of this controversy and was prepared to see a modernist housing estate from the 1920s well preserved. I must admit I was surprised by what I saw but in no way shocked. Transforming the place you live in was an everyday sight for me. And there among the many transformed and several unoccupied houses was the museum—a model house preserved as conceived by its architect. The scale of course is incomparable. Cité Frugès comprises 51 houses designed by Le Corbusier as a social and architectural experiment. The pre-fab housing in the former USSR and Eastern Europe where these housing politics spread are rather politically and economically defined and presents a system so centralised and rigid that the structures produced look almost identical, hence the general negative associations they evoke now and even before 1989. We could see the continuous transformation in their external envelope, and especially the transitional area of the balcony as a refusal to be a part of a uniform and pre-determined society after the fall of the communist regime.

What was claimed to give a harmonious and homogeneous (perhaps far too monotonous) look of a pre-fab residential complex is now a multitude of individualities expressed in the public space/private interior worlds opening to the outside. Loathed by everyone, even by the owners of such appropriated spaces (of course they would disagree with the aesthetics of others) the glazed Bulgarian balconies have turned into a means to claim individuality and defy centrally imposed order in urban space that was designed to instate equality mostly through uniformity.

All images courtesy of Neli Vassileva