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Typically a time of optimism, spring is also the most liminal of seasons, when the cold of winter slowly folds into the heat of summer. It is an intermediary period, a threshold. And as we quarantine at home this year in a sort of prolonged COVID-19 hibernation, the excitement of stepping through that threshold into the outdoors has been replaced with an unmistakable ache for many, especially those without access to quality private outdoor space. While a lucky few have backyards to occupy or rural landscapes to roam, many of us in urban centres are having to navigate sub-standard (or non-existent) outdoor realms. 

Just a few months ago, we could never have imagined the importance of these spaces, including that most underappreciated and often underused urban amenity: the balcony. But as those now iconic scenes coming out of Italy have shown, the ability to connect with the outside world and to interface with our neighbours relies on the presence, quality and ingenuity of the platforms we inhabit as well as the views from one balcony to another. In my home country of Canada and elsewhere, however, the occupants of many high-rise towers (not to mention those in basement apartments) aren’t afforded the opportunity to breathe fresh air and to engage with their community at a safe and comfortable distance.

Somewhere along the line, the way we use and value these spaces transformed. Outdoor rooms or courtyards (distinct from gardens) have been employed since antiquity. Historically, these private or semi-private spaces fulfilled critical functions such as cooking, working or sleeping, allowing for both contemplation and socializing. They were considered the most private and most secure spaces in a home. Fast forward to today and our notion of these spaces has deteriorated into an overly idealized one. People romanticize how they will use a balcony or terrace, but seldom do; in turn, such features have devolved into a box-checking exercise for developers and buyers without much consideration to how they could be improved for utility and economy. The sad result is diminutive outdoor space that far too often becomes storage for bikes and boxes. 

Clip-On by Atelier Van Lieshout.

Given our renewed awareness of quality indoor/outdoor access, the opportunity is now upon us to prioritize flexibility, one that allows visual accessibility at a minimum and original new green spaces at the other end of the scale. Enabling designers to shift fluidly between interiors and exteriors, making optimal use of space and vantage points, should be a must. On the more radical end of the spectrum, “parasitic” appendages affixed to the exterior of old buildings — such as the WoZoCo housing complex by MVRDV and Atelier Van Lieshout’s museum-building Clip-On, both from 1997 — have demonstrated bold, transformative ways for rethinking how we can access exteriors. 

Milan’s Bosco Verticale. PHOTO: Plflcn via Wikimedia Commons.

An example of leveraging every opportunity to connect occupants with ample green space — from both a public and a private perspective — is L’arbre blanc in Montpellier, France. In addition to its 113 apartments boasting sizeable cantilevered balconies, the tower, which was completed in 2019 by Sou Fujimoto, Nicolas Laisné, Dimitri Roussel and OXO Architectes, incorporates publicly accessible facilities on both the ground floor and rooftop, promoting the kind of indoor-outdoor living that the residents of Montpellier are known for. On a different scale, the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) residential towers in Milan have expanded on the functionality of the balcony space to increase the overall air quality of its urban setting. Featuring 900 trees, 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 perennial plants firmly rooted in planters on each tower, the outdoor spaces also serve to accommodate local bird life and regulate building temperature. These two projects are exemplary of something new: the balcony as a public as well as private amenity, an animating element available to urbanites in a considered and deeply inventive manner (L’arbre blanc) or as part of a broad infrastructure providing a public good (Bosco Verticale).

Dramatic balconies at Montpellier’s L’Arbre Blanc.

With a similar ambition to expand the utility of our outdoor spaces, my own firm, SvN in Toronto, is experimenting with terraced balconies in varying shapes and sizes, extending the function of the interiors at our 3803 Dundas Street West residential project for TAS, for instance, to forge a stronger connection with a forested valley edge nearby. The main design focus for the 300 apartments in the complex is the integration of elements usually associated with individual houses, specifically backyards and front porches. The development’s outdoor spaces will include community garden plots for food production and large balconies with planters doubling as birdhouses facing the ravine.

A model of SvN’s 3803 Dundas West in Toronto.

Of course, the realities of living in a northern climate can also pose significant design challenges when it comes to creating effective outdoor spaces. French firm Lacaton & Vassal’s recladding of a 1960s apartment block with an outer skin of insulated winter gardens, however, rose to the task, giving a new face to a stigmatized old building while also affording residents the opportunity, “as in a house, to live outside, while being home,” according to the architects. The project, located in Bordeaux, also demonstrated the ability to completely reinvigorate an aging structure by focusing solely on a renovated exterior. The enclosure of the balconies and the new operability of the facade embody the unique “flexibility as luxury” philosophy embraced by Lacaton & Vassal, which values such versatility over high-end fixtures and finishes. 

re-materializing construction, Lacaton & Vassal
A before and after view of Lacaton & Vassal’s Cité du Grand Parc in Bordeaux.

At SvN, we have similarly assumed an all-season design approach for a condo development at 385 The West Mall, incorporating retractable winter gardens as flexible, liminal spaces that moderate the environment between indoors and out. Heat maps that detected the highest trafficked spaces in an apartment layout revealed opportunities to apply a new type of living space to areas of lower usage. During the winter months, glassed enclosures extend the interior living space out and allow for greenhouse gardening; in the summer, they retract to expand the outdoor footprint and provide new options for residents. The design marks the next evolution in a heritage of three-season balconies in Toronto, following similar solarium-style balconies designed by architects such as Barton Myers and Jerome Markson along Gerrard Street East and in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood.

L'Arbre Blanc, Montpellier, Sou Fujimoto
Montpellier’s L’Arbre Blanc Blends Playful Folly with Public Purpose
Designed by Sou Fujimoto Architects and OXO architectes, the dramatic mixed-use building is iconic architecture with civic ambitions.
A rendering of SvN’s 385 The West Mall.

The prospect for quality outdoor spaces is not limited to balconies, of course. Rethinking parkland gained through development is another opportunity to explore what a future public realm could and should look like. If we live in dense cities, we need to uncover and explore all the flat spaces available to us for outdoor access, giving every individual the ability to connect with the outdoors. 

There is no question that how long we remain in quarantine will significantly impact the way we behave in and feel about our homes, both indoors and out. What we’ve learned from this stay-at-home mandate is that the true value and health of our cities is not solely dependent on spaces of commerce but also on spaces for respite and being. As springtime advances, our collective craving to immerse ourselves in outdoor life will no doubt intensify, but let’s not forget that our individual access to places of respite are not created equal. While some of us can breathe freely outside our doorways, many are confined by restrictive, unimaginative spaces that have not prioritized our psychological need to connect with the outside world. Perhaps there has never been a better time than now to creatively reform our approach to our private outdoor spaces and to reimagine their design and execution as serving a broad public benefit. 

Drew Sinclair is a licensed architect and designer and the Managing Principal at SvN Architects + Planners in Toronto.

Lead image: WoZoCo housing complex by MVRDV.

In Praise of the Urban Balcony

Canadian architect Drew Sinclair makes a case for rethinking the amenity, a lifesaver in the era of COVID-19 and a generally untapped boon.

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