Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bye, bye Balcony

Bye, bye Balcony

I'm sitting with journalist and local historian Rafique Baghdadi discussing balconies in Mumbai and a slow smile spreads across his face. In Alain de Botton's perceptive book The Architecture of Happiness, the writer makes a case for how architecture can make us happy or sad, how buildings and houses can affect us whether we live in them or simply find ourselves looking at them. It is hardly surprising that balconies, those sheltered protrusions of our homes that are not quite inside and not quite outside, fall into the category of things that make us happy. 

Baghdadi is smiling at the memories of interactions made possible through the balcony. "Parsis clapping to get your attention from their balconies, baskets and bags being lowered from long ropes to the sabziwala, people falling in love across these spaces," he says. "And in Hindi films, people run away from the house through balconies." 

Balconies also provide a narrative of the city. "From just looking at the iron railings you can tell which year the building was built," Baghdadi says. In classical and neoclassical buildings, balconies were little projections outside French windows with railings containing the space while Gothic and Neo-Gothic buildings often had verandahs wrapped around the edifice. Airy wrought iron railings all the way to the bottom allowed the breeze in at a lower level into the house so that air could flow through the house. But later balconies began to sport a solid facade. In the Art Deco period reinforced cement concrete made it possible to have subtly ornamented balconies that could project out like little floating spaces. 

Balconies come in all shapes and sizes and serve all kinds of purposes. In chawls they offer communal spaces for interaction and access while traditional balconies are spaces just as social, not only providing ventilation but also providing connectivity with the street and the city, as well as a place to dry things - from clothes to chillies to the dog after its bath. 

Photographer Ayesha Taleyarkhan's new coffee table book Beyond Bombay Balconies makes us take a fresh look at the city's balconies: from tiny ones and those elegantly fronted with wrought iron railings to verandahs with jalis and wooden balconies with flowers tumbling out of containers. "There's something special about this space, it's a very versatile space. It's not like a bedroom where you have to put a bed. It's a place close to the heart, a free-for-all space that can be whatever you want it to be," says Taleyarkhan whose fascination for balconies started in 2002 which resulted in the book Bombay: Balconies & Verandahs. Eleven years later, she wanted to revisit things. "Eleven years on, a lot had changed. The city has changed, technology has changed, my equipment has changed, I wanted to make it contemporary." 

Things have changed. Now you can head to the mall for dried chillies and there are dryers to dry clothes. "People would wake up and walk to the balcony and stretch and take in the world," says Baghdadi, "Now the first thing they do is switch on the TV." The space crunch has made many families enclose their balconies for extra room - a structural alteration allowed by the municipality - as a result of which balconies have disappeared and the city deprived of an important architectural element. 

"Today, most buildings do not have overhangs or balconies, or portions have glass," says architect Suprio Bhattacharjee. "Earlier there was a proportion of your area that was free of FSI for balconies. Now builders have no incentive to provide balconies unless they sell it as a lifestyle thing or a luxury." 

With box grills and air-conditioners, enclosed balconies have also meant a disfigured facade, the sort of thing that Alain de Botton says we avert our gaze from, to avoid "the possibility of permanent anguish". "Balconies gave you the flexibility to play with the facade and break the facade," says conservation architect Vikas Dilawari. They gave a building character, a play of light and shadow. Architect Brinda Somaya says that though there can be good design without balconies, what's problematic is if a building is designed for balconies which are then enclosed. "There should be a regulator, design rules should be in place," she says. "It's a great pity that people want to do away with balconies." 

The pity is that people don't even complain about not having a balcony, says Baghdadi. "You don't hear anyone say anymore saying, I was standing in my balcony and saw the fire. It's gone. It's like words... you don't use them, you lose them."