Commencing. A Brief History of Balconies entails the examination of subjectivities above ground, on little bits of buildings in air, looking down, at pennies on the sidewalk, oddly visible from the 34th floor, which appears to be the same level as jumbo jets coming into Logan from wherever they were coming from and above the sea. I once stood parallel with the jets as they banked and tipped their wingtips a little.
It’s an odd sensation to be in the air at such heights, stationary. It feels more natural to be in motion, to be flying. Chin on the warm aluminum extrusion of railing, I could fit my knees through the verticals. Just a slight web of metal anchored into concrete. I was once fearless at such heights and would sometimes stand on a patio chair to have the sensation of being clear of the rail. Was back a safe distance, or so assumed, with palms pressed to the balcony above. Holding myself in the in-between space like a jack, wedged between two floors and looking out over the rail to the vanishing point.
The strange thing about being up there in the middle of the sky was that the sounds of the city rose up with clarity otherwise obscured on the ground. Some of the noise lifted itself free from the streets. When the wind was right the smell of jet fuel would slide over the harbor. The sound would follow.
If you have ever wondered what happens to different things when they are thrown off balconies from on high you have come to the right place. Ice cubes are difficult to follow down unless they catch some sunlight, but they crack when striking bottom, or sometimes pop. Pennies, it was said, would plough through the skulls of pedestrians if a direct hit so this was genuinely avoided at all costs. The thing about coins is that they would flutter down, spinning end over like they had been designed for this. As mentioned above, they remained visible like little mirrors on the mezzanine. Eggs do what you might expect, but from that high up, 34 floors, the pressure would often break them apart before they attained nirvana, and thus throw out glinting fish nets as if they had been thrown over the rail to catch schools of flying fish. Batteries make a loud thwack when they land and remain, for the most part, intact though badly dented. They did not appear to leak acid. They did not explode. Slices of bread are actually aerodynamic to a point. One plastic model airplane. I believe it was a B-17. It fell belly down with hardly a spin. The wings popped off when it hit, but could be put back together and thrown off again, though smaller pieces were missing.
The afternoon of the fire trucks we all walked down the internal stairwell. Concrete buildings do burn. From the ground it was possible to identify my balcony by the angular fin of concrete that made the tower appear slightly larger at the upper floors. I always assumed the lower balconies meant something different to those low floor dwellers. Many seemed forgotten. They were so low they just weren’t worth the effort to stand on. Throwing anything off them would be anti-climactic.
The high balconies were high enough to put you in a different world. Things that departed those balconies were irrevocably altered, changed by the air, the journey down to the mezzanine. Once, or many times, actually, upon returning to that balcony after many years away, the sense of vertigo was enough to propel me back inside. I had somehow lost my balcony wings. Had I spent too much time living on the ground, no higher than the second floor?
The railing then seemed frailer and appeared to be positioned at the right height to flip over at the waist. Thinking back to my first high balcony experience, it had initially taken a few tentative approaches before I was able to stand at the rail and look down. Be brave. I don’t think I was unusual. I had just arrived from a low-rise life. Moving out to the edge of that balcony was like getting used to swimming in deep water. The one key difference is that your feet are grounded while you are floating. The other major difference is that the bottom is where the surface is.
And there is time, a brief flicker of time between seer and seen, whether looking out to the airport runways, or looking down at pennies. Then there is the more obvious delay of sound that puts you in a different time. It’s all that sky between the buildings and how the sky takes on the shapes of life—life out there somewhere. I was determined to get my wings back, but it took some effort and the vertigo never completely left.
There were other balconies, but none so high. My first balcony was the roof I climbed up on. I was five. My father had left the ladder leaning against the house so I climbed up to see what he was doing up there. Something to do with tar. Chutes and Ladders had been my favorite board game so I guess I associated that with the ladder. I could sit on the roof all day, but my brain could not work out how to get back onto the ladder and down to the grass. There was no chute. Somehow I was carried down.
Perhaps the vertigo is this memory. Or maybe it’s simply the changes to the inner ear. My sense of balance had shifted just enough to trigger an alarm. The Logan jets were reassuringly level and on approach, gears down and occasionally glinting in the sun. When the wind was right, they were absolutely silent. But I had to back up, unlike earlier days when I could go right up to the rail and lean.
Curious, I attempt to find something on balconies in Rem’s Delirious New York, but he seems to have avoided this for some reason and because this is not a work of scholarship there is no comprehensive index and relatively few notes for a volume of such fatness. This, to me, points to the fact that the balcony is actually something quite remarkable yet invisible. It is the means by which the façade is colonized and humans can float in the air while simply standing. Tall buildings with balconies fulfill the promise of the once great airships, the dirigibles. They seem uncommon enough to be special.
Rem covers the means of ascent and descent within skyscrapers made to seem fantastic—elevators, escalators—but he seemingly does not pay attention to how we can live on the outside of these towers. In fact, all the illustrations in Delirious show skycrapers devoid of balconies. The facades are intricately punched with glass to make amazing varieties of plaid.
The only image that even approaches the life of balconies is on page 83. Rem calls it the “1909 Theorem.” It was actually a cartoon depicting suburban homes shelved on slabs, one on top of the other, climbing the heights above the city—a tower of lawns and English manors with airplanes flying through. Additionally, there is a plate of the first Otis elevator, which actually looked like a balcony that moved up and down, a simple lift.
Is it true that when skyscraper cities were being conceived, high-altitude balconies were not considered feasible? Were they thought too dangerous? That balcony I grew up with does seem unusual when considered in relation to the rest of the city, and other cities. Are they more likely to build high balconies in places like Shanghai or Dubai? Did we in the west once build more but then become frightened, overly cautious? Perhaps it’s just too expensive beyond a certain height. Too many in’s and out’s. Just run the face of the building up and be done with it. People don’t use them, anyway, might go the thinking.
In truth, my balcony was more a place to store things than an extension of interior living. There was the occasional high-altitude barbeque—the blue smoke wafting out must have looked alarmingly wrong. Certainly, this was the highest barbeque in the city, except for those occasions when the people on the 38th floor had a fire going as well. Come to think of it, this was probably against the rules.
For the most part, my balcony was covered with overflow. This begins to approach the spatial strategy of the built-out balcony, the extra-space balcony, seen throughout the world as an extruded band of great diversity that runs up and down residential towers. In Hong Kong, for example balconies climb to high floors in a relentless repetition. But in time, any perceived monotony gives way to diversity as tenants enclose their balconies with different styles of framed glass or other materials. The facades begin to take on the lives of the tenants, each becoming a unique expression of hanging laundry, stacked junk, caged birds, pots and pans, and air-conditioning units popping here and there. So, perhaps it will be in the developing world that balconies attain their greatest logic and their greatest heights. That would be something.