I usually get to know a city intimately by doing two things: walking and looking up. By walking, I’m more likely to discover places which haven’t yet been rated on Trip Advisor and by looking up, I can appreciate the architectural features a city offers.
I have a thing for balconies. When travelling in Paris last June, I embraced the art of flânerie to savour the beauty of the wrought iron balconets. Later in Berlin, I witnessed residents’ attempts to recreate a picnic area in their own balconies, complete with plants, colourful striped parasols and a satellite dish to ensure no game of Bundesliga is missed. Meanwhile up north, Stockholmers seem to rarely use curtains in an attempt to invite every photon of light indoors.
Although every manner of balcony adds to the unique personality of a city, no balcony in Europe tells a more fascinating story than that of the Maltese balcony.
Clipped to Valletta’s golden walls, the traditional gallarija immediately strikes visitors as distinctive and extremely versatile. Its aesthetic, proportion and colour enrich the visual aspects of our streets through bright paint, wood and simplicity.
But where do these balconies come from?
It all started in the late 17th century, when Valletta acquired the first timber enclosed balcony on the island. It is widely held that this was the pine green one in the Grand Master’s Palace, stretching from Old Theatre Street up to St George’s Square. However, we have no record as to whether this was locally designed or imported.
The Maltese balcony is probably a derivative of the Spanish style balcony, which in turn is strongly influenced by the Arabic mashrabiya. However, the ethos of the Maltese balcony is different.
“In Arabic culture, the mashrabiya, literally a ‘peep-hole’, is a lattice screen enclosure generally built as a wooden window frame, which screened the window space completely,” architectural historian Conrad Thake says. “This style of balcony presented the Muslim female with her only direct contact with the outside world.”
Meanwhile, the function of the Maltese balcony is more of a theatre box and serves as an unobtrusive platform whereby one can witness the unfolding events on the streets below, designed to be seen, as well as to look out from.
“Put simply, the mashrabiya was a means of hiding away from life outside, whereas the Maltese balcony provides a platform through which you can participate in the life outside,” Thake says.
Winston Churchill said that the buildings we shape end up shaping us. The spaces we live in and the way we interact with them have had a significant impact on our culture. And the balcony is not only climatically and architecturally an important feature, but also a sociological one too.
On a practical level, the balcony is used to provide light and to control the climate. It’s also common to see the day’s washing hanging out to dry on balconies.
In the early 1990s, anthropologist Sibyl O’Reilly Mizzi observed this indigenous cultural phenomenon and wrote how:
“Many houses have a closed balcony, an ideal observation post for the street below and the activities of passers-by, without one’s self being observed. Towns and villages [in Malta] are densely populated, so there is almost always someone passing, some activity to interest a watcher. It is a perfect arrangement for neighbours to watch each other surreptitiously. It enables them to become familiar with the daily routine of everyone in the neighbourhood. Any deviation from routine, even a minor one, is immediately noticed.”
Two decades later, the balcony’s function on a practical level still exists, but what about its sociological use? Do people still spend their afternoons sitting in their balconies as they once used to?
While many in Valletta still adorn their balconies with a collection of plants, drapes, lights and effigies of saints during religious feasts, or use it for storing things, very few are those who casually while away their time interacting with life outside.
Wandering through the streets of Valletta on your average Sunday afternoon, most balconies are open to let in the crisp sea breeze, clothes hang outside to dry, while music can be heard having a duet with the pigeons’ clapping wings. But otherwise, I could only see two women peering out of their balcony at the world below.
The balcony is moving on to a new chapter in its history.
Its function of knowing from the inside what is going on outside seems to be declining. But is this a threat to the traditional Maltese balcony?
Not necessarily. Paraphrasing Churchill’s quote, it seems like it’s no longer the architecture that is shaping us, but the opposite.