I have always liked balconies. When we were looking for places to rent in Germany, I was always pushing for a flat with a balcony: eine Wohnung mit Balkon.
Fortunately for me, in the built-up areas of western Europe, balconies are very common. Plus, there’s the German obsession with fresh air (“Ich brauche frische Luft!”). So, when you’re up on a third floor, and there is very little private outdoor space available, a balcony can be a lifeline.
How do German balconies look like?
For someone from suburban Australia, there’s something fascinating about them too. The building blocks of the endless sprawling suburbs almost always include the backyard space, the central hub of family activities, barbecues, entertaining, and growing things.
It’s a social space, but it’s on the ground, usually covered in well-mown grass, decorated liberally (since function usually trumps form) with a garden shed and maybe a gazebo and also, perhaps, the status-seeking swimming pool.
The German balcony fills these kinds of roles, but on a smaller scale, of course. It’s a personal space, and Germans living in a permanent location will decorate according to their tastes. Flowers in overhanging pots are common. Various flags or ornaments based on soccer teams or interest in gnomes, spinning wheels, decorative sunshades … even mannequins in bizarre positions designed to draw the eye and shock.
But it’s a social space, and more public than you might immediately think; it juts out over the street below so that you are presenting yourself to those around you, instead of closing yourself off in the yard with invited guests.
Whether you like it or not, you are out there … once you’re out there. And not just purely in relation to the street, also to your fellow balcon-eers.
It’s this kind of social experience that came into focus during the recent Virus-times. Social media provided us with footage of balcony-music from musicians, both amateur and professional; balcony-to-balcony quiz shows trended; dancing became popular to shared music across buildings; and even silent and solitary activities like reading became something to do together (or, at least, at the same time in some kind of proximity…).
It became a place where we remained distant enough, but also in proximity enough, and we were able to retreat immediately if the desire so took us. The balcony became a very useful structural go-between.
It has not always been this way though. There is a history of balconies, of course: eine Balkongeschichte.
There were purely decorative balconies,(Schmuckbalkone) that had no real space to stand on, but faced the street, and one could still decorate with potted flowers. Or there were the housework balconies (Wirtschaftsbalkon) that gave an opportunity to air out and dry clothing, and normally faced away from the street and into a courtyard.
However, it was the appearance balcony (Der Erscheinungsbalkon) from the Imperial age of Germany from which the more modern design harks back to.
This is the kind of place famous people could step out and into, above the crowds, and read off a proclamation, wave to admirers (and be far enough away from those who did not admire…) or just smile and be seen.
Some of these balconies are, of course, highly ornate, and many of the more upmarket contemporary ones are modelled on them.
At the other end of the contemporary balcony, and combined with the lack of affordable living space in Berlin, a balcony was recently advertised for rent in the highly-prized Mitte district. 260 Euros a month bought you a ten square meter balcony and a tent to sleep in … and you still had to share the space with your indoor flatmates.
Our balcony is at the more functional end of the spectrum, sure. During the winter, we kept our cold drinks out there, so it became an outdoor refrigerator (ein Kühlschranksbalkon ?). But we have a small round table and some plastic chairs, so it’s a nice place to capture the sunset at the end of the day. We wave to the neighbor on the left. We watch many local dogs being walked. And relax.
Written by Jeremy Davis