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Wherefore art thou Romeo?

October 2019 Issue

Juliet’s famous question is often misunderstood as being a query asking where Romeo is? When in fact the pedants among you know what she’s really asking is ‘Why’ he is – a nuance often missed – and one that I’m not going to explore here. I am interested in where SHE was however – specifically where she was standing – at her balcony. A balcony so famous that she gave her name to it – the Juliet Balcony.

Balconies have been on my mind recently as we’ve been designing some for a new housing scheme in Central London. In particular I’ve been trying to work out why so many new-build schemes – and their balcony treatments - are so relentlessly horrible. I think I’m not alone in this. The default minimum planning requirement for 5 square metres of ‘external amenity space’ at a depth of 1.5m has produced a homogeneity that has ruined many a new-build elevation.

Even when scattered ‘randomly’ across a rent-a-slab block ‘for interest’ – possibly that makes things worse.

I can only think of one of these that even vaguely works – which is Bjarke Ingels VM housing scheme in Copenhagen. On this building the balconies point out from the elevation like a squadron of ship’s forecastles – sounds hideous – and probably is – except that it’s always presented alongside a picture of Leonardo de Caprio and Kate Winslet leaning out from the prow of the Titanic – so the association is immediately warm and fluffy.

I think the prescriptiveness of the legislation is a major contributor to the nastiness of this type of balcony – well intended – but reductivist – balconies as planning tick-box – resentfully included (by both developer and designer) on a buildings that often shouldn’t have them. At best they’re not used (I’ve seen plenty facing bus lanes for example – why would you want to sit out there?) - at worst they’re the most miserable form of unsightly storage for unwanted furniture, bikes and white goods.

Done well, balconies can be a thing of glory however - and they actually have a distinguished place in civic life – think of the royal kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after each Windsor Wedding? – or the annual papal address from St Peters?

So when is a balcony a balcony? In planning terms Juliet’s balcony really isn’t – it’s more of a French window with a balustrade in front of it (yet ironically the famous Juliet balcony in Verona isn’t a ‘Juliet’ one – its’ a normal ‘sticky-out-from-the-wall’ balcony). At the other end of the scale if a balcony is too big when does it become a terrace? Does it have to have something underneath it? Or not be enclosed? Try telling that to the people of Malta and Gozo – who’s glorious and decorated and enclosed balconies are so spectacular they’ve ended up on the country’s stamps.

We’ve tried something similar in the UK of course – not with stamps – but I’ve worked on various schemes where we’ve been asked to include ‘Winter Gardens’. These are basically fully enclosed balconies – always shown in the planning and marketing blurb packed with pot plants and garden furniture – that can be opened up during the summer and closed off during the winter. Sounds ideal – but I’ve only ever seen it on high-end schemes here – schemes where it’s expedient to present the ‘Winter Gardens’ as external amenity space to the planners, not part of the saleable internal area and/or associated viablility calculations during a planning application – which then miraculously become part of the saleable internal area in the estate agent’s window. A neat trick – driven as always in the UK by the historic model of ‘housing as cash’ – a model that perhaps, now is changing.

Just a little.

Being a slightly less cynical for a minute there are some more socially generous examples of this approach being developed internationally. It’s done very well by the architects Lacaton and Vassal in France. They’ve developed an evolving model of housing regeneration in which they take tired and/or underperforming social housing estates and dramatically improve both the environmental performance, and environmental amenity of the buildings with new ‘winter garden’ facades. The schemes are often developed in close consultation with the community, improving social cohesion, while also benefiting from the embodied energy and reduced carbon footprint of retaining an existing structure – I expect we’ll see more of this francophile socialism here too – particularly if Labour get in.

Moving on from that particularly French example however there’s another international model that’s potentially even more appealing to you all. Of course you all want to make fabulous, award winning, socially responsible schemes - but you want to make money too.

And where better to look than America? I recently visited the $25 billion Hudson Yards project in New York – you can’t really miss it as it’s the one with the $250 million Thomas Heatherwick designed ‘vessel’ in the middle of it – that’s nice - but the building I really like on this site is the innocuously titled 55 Hudson Yards – a 1.3million square foot, 51 storey office tower.

Mostly because of its balconies.

What’s brilliant is that it doesn’t have any.

The floorplate is a simple four sided super-efficient box with a core in the middle. So that donut of space from core to wall is what gets leased. But for extra money they’ll build you a balcony – less space for more money – and if you look at what’s actually been built the tenants have been buying them.


‘Wherefore’ aren’t we doing that here?

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