BETWEEN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SPACE
an essay on the performative and social roles a balcony plays in the life of a city
The street is a shared urban landscape that takes shape through experience; as we move we add to its accumulated identity, carving out individual routes over concrete, making associations and forming memories as movement meets place and assembles it in individual and collective minds. In occupation we bring with us the place that we were in prior to the present: no space is experienced in isolation from a starting point. Public lives consist of personal constellations of people and places colliding in real time, and formations are influenced by the position which frames the viewpoint. Navigating space to form identity requires a dance of give and take between the layered built environment and its human inhabitants.
It is from the viewpoint of the street that we approach balconies and they become part of the public landscape. The pedestrian’s experience of a streetscape holds agency; building up perceptions of place that correspond to the street at different points in time, under different weather conditions and with different assemblages of people, the multiple viewpoints of endless street goers hold the identity of place in their experiences. The surfaces of buildings visually inform experience whilst shaping the form and structure of the space contained. The material landscape of the street is vertically comprised of walls, doorways and windows, drain pipes, cables and decoration in the way of greenery and flower boxes. The scene is both functional and ornamental; the faces of buildings present a public display of utility and decoration.
The balcony is experienced both by its occupier and the inhabitant of the street. It lies somewhere between private and public space, balancing a gaze which looks both outward and inward, upward and downward. The relationship between looking and occupying holds meaning and power; the connection between parallel viewpoints and ways of looking plays some part in producing both the social life of the street and the lives played out on the balconies above.
Inhabitants of the street take ownership of their surrounding space, living spaces into being through occupation and navigation. The balcony extends the surface of a building outward, giving it a separate identity as it corresponds to divergent environmental conditions. The private space of the home is opened up to remote disruption and intervention from the street as the atmosphere of a locality reaches in. Public voices, interactions and traffic punctuate conversations. Looking down, the street is commodified as theatre and the activity that takes place in it is repackaged as viewing activity. There is luxury in owning a viewpoint that is elevated and detached from the commotion of the ground; balconies are often used for ceremonial addresses, the power of the occupant reinforced through their raised and separate position. The occupants of a balcony are offered an aerial view of the street. Vision is opened up, but detached from close physical experience, perspective instead corresponds with personal safety and separation. From the detached space of the balcony a person does not contend with crowds of strange bodies, dust, dirt and noise, but experiences it as something removed: this disconnection creates space for the streetscape to become something different, neat and tidy, as its viewpoint cleanses it of ordinariness.
Looking up from street level, the activity that takes place on balconies shows visitors something about local culture. Private space that exists in the realm of public space takes on a performative element. The balcony is private space made public; on a balcony inhabitation and action does not have the luxury of privacy, but it does have the privilege of viewpoint and separation. Balconies are platforms, and the behaviours, activities and scenes enacted on these platforms produce different assemblages of urban space. When everyday actions, such as hanging up washing or drinking coffee, are performed on a balcony they blend the private life of the home into the social scene of the street, constructing an open public realm which works across levels and layers. When there is an awareness of separation the street becomes something disconnected and aestheticised; through an elevated viewpoint the street turns into a scene to consume, detracting from its existence as a living entity that the occupier actively contributes to.
The balcony as stage realises the social potential in the exteriors of buildings. The wall that stands between the home and the space outside is breached as the private space of the home is extended outward. Raising a doorway in place of a wall bridges a barrier where private lives can become public. What kind of living takes place on a balcony? As extensions of living space they are spaces of leisure and convenience, used for hanging laundry, smoking a solitary cigarette, as storage, for catching up with friends and neighbours and growing flowers and herbs in plant pots and window boxes. Balconies in cities are spaces of economy, maximising airspace when space on ground level is in short supply.
The balcony as stage takes up airspace in the street; the home anchors it. Private lives are put on display to the public when out on the balcony stage, decorating the street with new layers of sociality. A balcony cannot be enjoyed in the same way as a garden, and is demonstrative of both spatial deficiencies and urban utility. Leisure time enjoyed on a balcony becomes something different; acknowledging the exterior space it surveys, the viewpoint becomes an attractive feature that gives the space agency. The urban landscape of the street forms as performed public behaviours fuse with the physical structure of the built environment. Residential city balconies allow everyday practices to synchronise across spatial levels, building on an urban identity in flux, and a hierarchy which is constantly shifting.