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The History & Evolution of Balcony Design

The History & Evolution of Balcony Design
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While often given little consideration in talk of architecture, balconies are an undoubtedly important feature in the design of a house. As well as yielding the power to elevate a house’s exterior from ordinary to impressive, they’ve also featured in some of the most iconic scenes ingrained in our culture, from pop culture to politics.

Eva Peron’s now legendary address to the Argentinian people took place on the balcony of the Casa Rosada (or “Pink House”). Michael Jackson’s so-called “Balcony Baby” made his public debut in Berlin from the balcony of Adlon Hotel’s presidential suite. Prince William first kissed his wife, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

While balcony design has changed and developed over the years, they've remained a consistent feature in both art and reality, serving as the backdrop to so many influential figures and memorable moments.

The History of Balconies

Balcony Design - Greek Balcony

While it’s hard to trace the exact origins of balconies, but the earliest examples are thought to have featured in Ancient Greek architecture. At the time, it was likely they were more functional than fashionable, with heavy stone buildings requiring an outlet through which air could circulate and natural light could enter.

Their function seems to have changed and developed with the way of the world over the years. 19th-Century architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc suggested that the modern-day balcony design derives from the medieval hourd – an anti-siege device that could be mounted onto a castle wall. Although their uses might now seem primeval (often defenders of the castle took cover behind slate coverings and dropped rocks on the heads of intruders), hourds were in many ways ahead of their time. Designed to be easily assembled shortly before or sometimes even during battle, they were a feat of ingenuity and craftsmanship.

The timing of the balcony’s transition into a decorative adornment is somewhat unclear, but early examples seem to point towards the now-famous Juliet balconies that were adopted by European architects during the 18th and 19th Centuries. While these initially served a practical purpose similar to that of the Ancient Greek designs, they soon became a fashionable choice that were added to homes to make them appear more grandiose. This effect was furthered during Britain’s Regency era, when the falling cost of iron allowed craftsmen to produce more elaborate designs.

Juliet’s Balcony

Balcony Design - Juliet's Balcony

Juliet balconies may continue to be popular throughout Europe, but one place they won’t be found, surprisingly, is at Verona’s famous Casa di Guilietta – or Juliet’s House.

The site has long been popular with Shakespeare’s most avid readers, despite the balcony never actually being mentioned in the original play. However, performances often depict Juliet reciting her famous monologue – “wherefore art thou, Romeo?” – from one, and so it’s become an iconic image in romance literature. The house in Verona has become associated with the play because of the archway proclaiming it to be the residence of the Cappilletti – thought to be a reference to Juliet’s family, the Capulets.

Juliet’s House has long been the central tourist destination in Verona, and its central role in the 2010 Hollywood film, Letters to Juliet, furthered its popularity. Tourists often visit to write their and their lovers’ names on the entrance walls or to leave love letters on the walls – a tradition rumored to make love everlasting.

The house is a beautiful example of 14th Century architecture. The balcony design, however, dates from a slightly later time, as it wasn’t a feature of the original house. Once the house gained popularity amongst tourists, it was added to replicate the depictions in Romeo and Juliet.

Despite its namesake, Juliet’s Balcony would more aptly be labeled a French balcony, because of its small terrace space on which visitors can stand. Traditional Juliet balconies are reminiscent of false balconies in that they typically don’t include a platform for standing on.

Types of Balconies

Balcony Design - False Balcony

Juliet and false balconies may be similar, but there are marked differences that architects consider of the utmost importance. In fact, differences are highlighted even between false balconies and faux balconies – two words typically considered synonymous.

While a false balcony is so named because there isn’t room to stand, there is still typically a minute deck included, although not enough to impact the square footage of a house or apartment. Faux balconies, on the other hand, comprise nothing but railing attached to a home exterior. French balconies is so named because of the French doors that typically precede it, making it perfect for rooms that need a little extra light.

Exterior balconies with space for standing – or sitting, or soliloquizing – are known as true balconies. These are often featured in European holiday homes, where spectacular views can be taken in from outdoor furniture, or summer cocktails can be shared over meals eaten al fresco.

Adding a Balcony

Whilst fashions and functions of balcony design may have evolved throughout the years, they have remained a popular feature throughout the history of architecture and into the present day.

When contemplating adding a balcony to your own property, there are a number of factors that should be taken into consideration. As well as exploring the different types of balcony available to you, it’s important to match your chosen design with your property type, lifestyle and surroundings.

If you live in a contemporary property, you might consider a glass railing. This also works well in areas with impressive scenery, offering greater scope to enjoy the views. If, however, you are renovating a house that sits in a more traditional street, wrought iron railings may be more in keeping with the architecture.

What may look stylish on a modern beach house in the South of France may seem out of place on a cobbled street of a London Mews. Your balcony should enhance the beauty around it rather than contrast it.

Connecting cultures as diverse as Ancient Greece and 20th Century Argentina, and figures as different as Michael Jackson and Juliet Capulet, it seems that balconies have also served as bridges – ones that straddle the space between art to architecture to create some of the world’s most striking properties.