View from the Gods – Frank McNally on how the pandemic has been a golden age of balconies
“Always a desirable thing to have, especially if you live in a small apartment, the balcony has been enjoying its finest hour since the lockdown.” Photograph: Getty Images
If bookshelves are the classic indoor backdrops of the pandemic, the outdoor equivalent are balconies. Always a desirable thing to have, especially if you live in a small apartment, the balcony has been enjoying its finest hour since the lockdown. All over Europe, it has been the ideal place for neighbours to come together alone.
The phenomenon started – where else? – in Italy, home of the most famous balcony in literature. A combination of architectural and operatic tradition combined to turn the real-life tragedy of coronavirus into something dramatic and beautiful as singers and musicians performed arias or anthems, solo or in unison, from their homes, to keep spirits up.
On these miniature stages, paradoxically, even audiences could be stars. The nightly rounds of applause for healthcare staff that also swept the continent this spring have always looked and sounded best from massed ranks of balconies, preferably echoing around enclosed courtyards, than anywhere else.
Juliet’s bedroom in Verona, despite boasting its own frontline-working nurse, would have been deficient for this role. In Shakespeare’s version, at least, it overlooked an orchard.
Whereas the best balconies in 2020 have been the backward-facing ones, overlooking other balconies, and offering only vistas – sometimes breath-taking – of your fellow humanity.
Street-level applause and performances have been so much less dramatic by comparison, making those who live in houses, especially with long front gardens, look deprived.
It is no coincidence that Italy had also given architecture the concept of the piano nobile (“noble storey”), usually the first floor, sometimes the second, of a building, removed from the noises and smells of street level, where balconies and other design flourishes are concentrated.
In France, they call it the bel étage. And Paris is full of them, although levels of grandeur vary greatly. I recall standing under one on the Boulevard de Clichy in 2016 when a surprised occupant, a man of mature years, found himself elevated to a position of nobility the architecture itself would not have justified.
His apartment was above an Irish pub, during the European Football Championships, so that when he came out to water his plants one day, a large crowd of soccer fans thought it would be a good joke to proclaim him Pope. I hope his Facebook fame was a consolation for several noisy nights and all the times he had to return footballs kicked into his flower beds.
That is one downside to living in a bel étage, albeit an extreme case. Aesthetic shortcomings may be a more common complaint. In an unnamed city full of balconies somewhere once, between the wars, the writer Joseph Roth found himself depressed at how the buildings’ obvious aspirations to be beautiful had been so compromised by reality.
“Here everyone loves their veran-dah,” he wrote, thus hyphenating a word he considered pretentious. But no matter how many flowerpots were added, he thought, it failed to mask the buildings’ deficiencies. They were all “haunted” by the souls of their designers, he thought: “They symbolise the lives of thousands of architects, and the gulf between what they intended and what they actually built.”
What would Roth have made of Dublin then or now? We are still not blessed with many noble storeys here, whether they were ever intended. Mind you, even in the era he wrote about, when Irish apartment blocks were few, Dublin was acquiring some continental-style constructions, albeit more Dutch than Italian in style.
Thanks to Herbert Simms, city architect in the 1930s and 1940s, many of the Corporation flats of that era retain a certain elegance, balconies included. But even some of the more recent and purely functional ones have gained in stature these past few months. In ways the planners hardly imagined, they have allowed for safe, communal events. So instead of spreading coronavirus, they’ve been going viral on social media.
I stopped by one local version on a sunny Friday evening of late, where a mass-participation bingo game, with musical interludes, was in session. The flats were nothing special, two rectangular blocks, facing each other across a carpark. And yet they had taken on almost medieval, Italianate air. The communal gaiety was suggestive of Florence in the years after the Black Plague, ruined only by the MC playing 1980s disco music.
The heroine of this balcony scene turned out to be an “Aisling”, not a Juliet. But the gods (or at least the lower balconies) had smiled on her and, along with a cash prize, her good fortune earned an ovation from all sides. In another minor paradox, she had been confirmed as the owner of something flat dwellers do not usually enjoy – a full house.