A couple of years ago, I lived in an apartment in Chennai where all the flats had balconies overlooking a busy street and were connected by invisible threads to all the activity around—a lively game of gully cricket; a dosa cart across the street with the clanging metal ladle that was audible even across the noise of vehicles, the aroma wafting across all the traffic and smoke; the mechanic who made brisk business in his makeshift shop. We knew the rhythms of the street; we could watch for guests as they arrived, we could signal to the delivery man wandering right outside the gate with an unreliable GPS, or shout out to the cab driver that we’d be down in a minute. Our personal space was just a few feet away, but we were a part of the outside world; part of the rhythm of the city.
There are a lot of things people have missed this year—family, friends, colleagues, and oddly, strangers. People have spoken about fleeting engagements they missed from old routines. When confined to our houses, a balcony is often the one space that can lend itself to these interactions from afar; the elderly lady in an opposite building drying her greying hair in the morning sun; a middle-aged couple having their evening chai with quiet camaraderie; a child waving a reluctant bye to her father going to work. Are these an invasion of privacy, or do they give us a sense of community even without active engagement?
As we are thrown headlong into the Covid second wave, this small personal outdoor space feels so much more crucial than its 15-odd square feet. This past year, when even stepping out for a quick walk was sometimes not an option, I had never before yearned so much for a small balcony that looked outside. Like several others in my current building, our rented flat has enclosed balconies. This is a trap many people fall into—even those with no real space constraints trap their little outdoor space with frosted glass and metal grills in the hope of getting larger rooms, more privacy and safety.
But times like these remind us of things we’ve lost out with high-rise apartment living, such as spaces for ‘good old-fashioned curiosity’; a need that was earlier taken care of by a traditional verandah or standing at the gate.
My family has always had a strong attachment to balconies. My grandmother, who lives in Bengaluru, continues to spend at least half her waking hours in one—reading the papers, hemming a sari fall, shelling peas, tending to my mother’s balcony garden and being the first person to spot a new rose or a fresh red chilli, and of course watching the going-ons downstairs. Now touching 90, she narrates, “My day starts here. I watch all the cars passing, people walking... Earlier, I would stand at the gate to pass time, and all the people from the street would chat with each other. Now in the apartment, this is my most-used spot. I can’t imagine the house without it.” For seniors, especially, the space becomes doubly important as they venture outside less and less.
As a child, the balcony was a place to learn your chemistry formulae, read the latest Harry Potter or signal to friends in the building across. Now children who can’t go outside when apartments are sealed and quarantined need these spaces even more to handle the restlessness of being inside four walls.
The smaller the house, the more important these outside spaces become—something most visible in dense housing where verandahs and corridors become multi-functional spaces where activities of the house spill out. “When I was growing up in Bombay in a chawl-like housing colony, we didn’t have balconies but the common corridors outside were important spaces for all of us—to play cricket, for cooking, or even to sleep when guests stayed over. The idea of privacy was completely different,” says Sanjay Mohe, a Bengaluru-based architect. He has modified his present apartment to make the balcony bigger and the indoors smaller. This space has become infinitely more important during the ongoing lockdown in the city. “The threshold makes all the difference when you are connected to the outside. I have all my meals sitting in the balcony, or sit here and sketch. It helps free the mind,” he says.
Kiran Keswani, co-founder of Everyday City Lab, a research and urban design collective, also feels that balconies highlight the idea of ‘threshold spaces’—physical thresholds, social thresholds, and between people and nature. “In this period, these threshold spaces became for some the primary places for engaging with others. The physical threshold between houses allows us to maintain social distancing, while we continue to hold conversations across them. They bring us closer to nature while being away from it. They also remind us that we are, today, at the threshold of a change in the global outlook towards our environment because of the pandemic,” she says.
This period has also seen many apartment-dwellers realising the importance of this space. Many developed interests in sprucing up their balconies and trying their hand at gardening. Bengaluru-based couple Shraddha and Dushyant Peddi, who always had a small terrace garden, found that a lot of people who never had interest in plants came to them with queries on plants and fertilisation. “When people were stocking up on groceries, I was stocking up on plant supplies. In a garden, you can be alone but never isolated. We never felt fully locked up, because whenever I got anxious, I would go and start tilling and repotting my plants,” says Shraddha.
With apartments becoming denser, taller and more inward-looking, it’s easy for balconies to end up losing that connection with the street and outside world. They often end up as dull spaces that overlook blank walls, or as pretty but secluded spaces where privacy is premium. But what happens when our only interaction with the outside world is mediated by a screen, and we need a space away from the relentless pull of social media? What if we can watch the streets of Paris on a Netflix series, but are cut off from the street and neighbourhood right outside?
These are reminders of the everyday sense of community that this small space can offer us, with neighbourliness and community, is important to get us through these lonely times.
The writer is a Bengaluru-based architect who writes about cities and urban life.