Tall Buildings and Balconies: What Makes a Good or Bad Design


The great weather continues, and everyone is looking for opportunities for indoor outdoor living.  In today’s post, we’ll explain why the balconies of the Marina City towers, featured last week, are so great (Hint: its not just because they are half round in shape) and some of the other features of a great tall building balcony. 

So, What Makes for a Great Balcony?

At its best, a balcony is a magical thing – an oasis, a window on the world, a liminal space between inside and out that is sheltered and private but with a view of the outside world.

This idea of Refuge and Outlook is familiar to anyone who has watched a child (or cat) delight in finding some tucked away space where they can cosy up and look out.

Outlook – the view from the balcony – is hard to control for, as it falls outside the building footprint, by definition.  However, nearly any view can hold interest, wether it be the skyline of a great city, a wind swept Lake Michigan or just the neighboring alley.

Refuge is within the control of the building designer.  It comes from a sense of privacy – height above the street, protection from side to side views – and protection from the elements and from the view of neighboring eyes.

Where do Balconies Come From?

In a 2014 exhibition of architectural fundamental “elements”, the feature on balconies was curated by Rem Kookaas who crafted his narrative around its medieval antecedents.  While I have no doubt that the Huord – a wall mounted wooden scaffold to support and shelter archers during medieval battles – existed, Koolhaas’ origin story is extremely western culture centric.  However much fun it may be to drop water balloons on passers by from an overhanging balcony, they’ve been around much longer than Koolhaus’s 11th century defensive use.

Fun Fact: apparently the most famous association of the balcony – the “Balcony Scene” in Romeo and Juliet is an anachronistic fake out since the word balcony is not in the play and, in fact, didn’t exist in English until after Shakespeare died.

In fact the nearly universal nature of hot culture design history suggests that balconies were a common feature of urban buildings in the fertile crescent, in Egypt, in India and in China.  Enclosed spaces that projected out from building walls over the street allowed for the collection of vital air movement.  As example, the wooden balconies on this Cairo street, image via Wikimedia Commons.

enclosed balconies

Balconies on Modern Buildings

We hate to generalize, but the Modern Greats were generally terrible at balconies.  The buildings popularized by the school of International Modernism are far to focused on their materials base theory to bow to such human-comfort considerations as refuge and outlook.  Check out the “balconies” on the Weissenhof Colony walk-up apartments designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1927.  Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

weissenhof balconies

Despite the good intentions of the building – to create affordable and hygienic living spaces for working families its approach to indoor outdoor space is vestigial at best.  And after a few years (see Mies’ Chicago work) they started enclosing their buildings in glass and stopped allowing for balconies – or any operable access to the outside – at all.

That’s not to say wonderful, sheltering balconies, integrated into the whole building design can’t, or haven’t, been done even, or perhaps especially, in groundbreaking buildings.  One of my favorite examples integrated balconies are the playful grotto like outdoor spaces on Gaudi’s 1910 Casa Mila (affectionately known as “the quarry” or La Pederera.  The shots below are my own.

la pederera balconies gaudi

Juliet Balconies: the Common Compromise

Its all too common to simply slap a metal balcony sized to hold a medium scale George Foreman on to the side of a building and then replicate it all the way up and down, and side to side until it has lost all meaning other than to include with the realtor’s check list of unit amenities at the time of sale.  But the “amenity balcony” can actually become still more vestigial in the form of the Juliet Balcony – a railing around a door to nowhere.  These can be aesthetically appealing, and even house a few potted plants, but are no use to the humans who live behind all those french doors.

juliet balconies in barcelona

To conclude, we can answer the question posed by the images at the top of the post.  Why is the Marina City style of balcony pretty great and the similar half round, slapped onto 2020 Lincoln Park West, not?

In one building, the balconies are integral (literally) to the form and structure, in the other they are tacked on to the outside of a building that doesn’t really need them.  At Marina City, each balcony is shaded and sheltered by the arching support for the one above it, and shielded from the view of its neighbors on each side by the curvature of the building and, at 2020, the prow-of-the-ship form of each balcony accentuates its view but, provides no feeling of enclosure or protection.  Nor does it offer any privacy from neighbors on near by balconies.

In the end, the pictures speak for themselves.  Where would you rather be?