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UrbanRubryka 09:47 12 Aug 2021

Ukrainian balconies: when did it all go wrong and what to do about it now

"Glazed balconies are like broken windows." We explain what's common between balconies and the "social epidemic," and what to do about it.

Do you remember how at the beginning of the pandemic we admired the Italians who sang, partied, talked to each other from their balconies? Restrictions imposed in many parts of the world because of the COVID-19 pandemic have turned balconies into real cultural centers and active life hubs, not only in Italy. In Japan, food was delivered through balconies; in France, fitness classes were held for elderly neighbors. Spaniards watched movies, broadcast by mobile cinemas. On the balconies, people trained, gave concerts, created thematic installations, and held art exhibitions. Balcony life was raging everywhere, but not in Ukraine. Why? Because our balconies are calked and cluttered almost everywhere. In Europe, they became space, a breath of fresh air, and part of the city; in Ukraine, they've become a closet and pantries. Singing or setting up a romantic dinner in the closet is somehow not very convenient, eh? And we don't want to do something like this on our balconies.

When did everything go wrong?

Balconies and loggias began to lose their original functions of summer rooms, special areas in the apartment, where you can go out to breathe fresh air, read a book or newspaper, drink coffee, have breakfast not so long ago. If you look at photos of Ukrainian cities 70 years ago, you can see that there were no glazed balconies. The beginning of balconies transforming into closets began in the 60s, during the mass housing construction. There wasn't enough space to store all the things in the cramped apartments, so some of the items — large ones and "something that would come in handy" — were gradually moved to the balcony for storage. And, of course, the balcony has always seemed the most convenient place for drying clothes. To keep things from spoiling in the winter, we began to glaze balconies, and often on our own. As a result, apartment buildings began to look like a useless pile of barns.

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Glazed balconies theory

Semen Shyrochyn, a researcher of Kyiv's architecture, calls the era of chicken coop balconies a social epidemic described by broken windows theory. Glazed balconies are like broken windows. And this needs to change.

"Most of our people don't know what modernist houses look like in Europe," says Semen Shyrochyn. "They go there to see castles, churches, everything old, and they rarely visit new areas. And they think that abroad countries have something special, and we have only a 'recall of the Soviet Union' and nothing can be done about it. It's our complex to think that everything can only be better abroad, and everything is bad here. And this complex has existed for many years; even our typical panel buildings are called Czech, although these are Kyiv projects. Because Kyiv can't be good, and the Czech can. Our cities look worse than European ones, although they could look on par."

In many European countries, you can neither replace the window nor paint the door without the permission of architectural services in historic parts of cities, even if you're the owner of the house. To install a satellite dish, air conditioner, or make a king-balcony on the facade is generally a matter of jurisdiction. And in the residential areas, you'll hardly find rubbish on the balconies; Europeans appreciate the extra space to their homes in a completely different way.

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"Khrushchev-era" apartment in Warsaw, Poland

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Reconstructed "Khrushchev-era" apartment in Leinefeld, Germany

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Balconies in Berlin. Photo by Oleksii Bratushchak

"I've repeatedly come across the opinion," the expert continues, "that a glazed balcony in our region can be considered a sign of success and wealth. On the contrary, I consider it a sign of poverty. How poor you have to be so that you don't have enough space for potatoes, skis, and other things. If you want to store rubbish, buy a bigger apartment, rent a garage at worst, but no, our people are so poor that they have to glaze balconies with overhanging length to put something on the windowsill. No wonder our people think that houses abroad are more beautiful; in Europe, they won't allow such a brawl with the facade. Poverty isn't measured by the inability to glaze a balcony. Poverty is inherited greed for living space, an eternal feeling of its lack, a desire to grab more, to snatch a piece of the entrance, stairwell, facade."

Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba also spoke out against crooked balconies on his Facebook page. Glazed structures, he stressed, spoil historic architecture and have a non-European look. At first, Deputy Prime Minister also had an ordinary glazed balcony, but after traveling to Europe, he decided to remove the glass.

"The horribleness of the balconies and the grayness of the air conditioners are a sign of any corner of Ukraine. It's one of the most recognizable symbols of the country. It's a national distaste. Unfortunately. But it's the reality we're used to. And you can't get used to it. You can laugh at it, grieve, reflect on why we're like that, but not get used to it," the deputy prime minister wrote.

However, the attitude of Ukrainians to balconies is gradually changing. Staying mentally poor is no longer fashionable. In large cities, people are beginning to perceive the apartment as a space for a comfortable life, rather than as a repository of "everything gained by hard work." At the same time, balconies are being transformed; now they're considered not as open-air pantries, but as a place for a pleasant pastime.

The head of the Ukrainian Guild of Directors, Zhanna Maksymenko-Dovhych, who de-glazed her balcony, believes that the balconies and air-conditioned blocks on the facades, glazed without respect for facades and people, cripple the city's appearance. "The house where I live is an art and architecture landmark. Northern Art Nouveau. Some neighbors understand the value of the house and care about it. Others don't attach importance to it. Our house has not just a glazed, but an attached infamous king-balcony, which is located on the firewall of the house, just above the Museum of Lesya Ukrainka. The owner of the 'masterpiece' conveyed the value of the house, the proximity to the museum. And there's a neighbor who carefully restored the sculptures on the facade. His balcony bloomed with geraniums from May to November. The balcony is not for storing potatoes and rubbish. It's to feel like part of the City. The advantages of an unglazed balcony are open air, sunlight, city views at dawn. After all, it's so nice to drink coffee on the open balcony!"

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What do you need to unglaze your balcony?

  • Respect

Historians and architects have always opposed the transformation of balconies, which distort the original appearance of the building. This applies not only to old houses. For example, Pavlo Nirinberg, who built the Peremoha housing estate in Dnipro in the 1970s, equipped his sixteen-story buildings with sail-shaped balconies so that residents couldn't glaze them. However, this helped little and most of the residents of the unique high-rise buildings still glazed the windows. The architect's plan was ruined.

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Pavlo Nirinberg's sixteen-story building, a plan, and a modern look

Semen Shyrochyn has a story with vases under his belt; he decided to return decorative vases to the facade of the house where he lived. Studying old photos of the facade, the Kyiv researcher learned that there were vases on the balcony parapet. Vases from this building disappeared in the 1960s. It was impossible to find drawings in the archives. Close architects helped to make measurements of the facade and drawings, which repeated the outlines and dimensions of the vases; then they looked for craftsmen who agreed to create the lost decorative elements. "I'm very worried about the city, I constantly see how historical monuments disappear and break, how they're constantly rebuilt and added something. People mostly cripple the city. I decided to show that you can do the opposite and do the right thing. I had to set a precedent and I created it."

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Returning buildings to their original appearance means not only showing respect for their creators and hometown. First of all, it's self-respect. And to those who will live after us.

  • Courage

To part with the old things that clutter the balcony or loggia, you need a lot of moral courage. Our main explanation of why we can't throw away this or that thing is: "It may come in handy." We can understand our parents, who lived in an era of total scarcity and took care of any more or less suitable thing because they didn't know when the next lucky chance would come to get something like that. But today you won't carry your children on rusty sleds but will buy them new ones, and the disassembled old wardrobe, which you've been going to move to the country for ten years, will most likely not reach it. So stock up on garbage bags and remember that storing questionable items minimizes personal space and steals your energy.

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De-glazed balcony, before and after

  • Persistence

Finding people who'll agree to dismantle balcony frames can take a long time. Balcony repairmen will assure you that the top thing now is a glazed balcony, and you can count those who return the buildings to their original appearance on one hand. For example, a window contractor tried to persuade Dmytro Kuleba from removing the glass: "He listened carefully to our request to open the balcony, looked at us like we're little stupid children, and said, 'Now I'll explain everything to you.' He explained for a few minutes why it's cool to have a glazed balcony," the deputy prime minister recollects. Often, contractors honestly admit that it's simply not profitable for them to send a team for such a task. To find the people you need, call the ads that offer preparatory repairs, redevelopment, and dismantling.

  • Money and ingenuity

Prices for dismantling, which contractors offer, can vary greatly (for example, in Kyiv, along with the removal of old frames and garbage, such work costs 1500-3000 UAH; in Rivne, 1500, and Odesa and Mariupol prices start from 900 to 1000). You may have to restore the railing, restore the fence, lay tiles on the floor, and refresh the facade. A life hack from one of Kyiv's architects will help to save money. While returning the historic look to her balcony, she wrote an ad on OLX: "I'll give away the balcony frames for free. Pickup"; "600 views in the first day, a few dozen offers to come and pick up. I chose the people who made a greenhouse in the country. Some of them even offered money to get ahead of others."

  • Confidence

Neighbors rarely like to de-glaze balconies. They can come to you with complaints and you'll have to prove your right to have a balcony, as the authors of the project saw from the beginning. If the balcony is on a historic building, it is worth remembering: any change in the house's facade, which has historical value and is a historical monument, must be agreed upon with the city authorities, but since the removal of glazing is restoration work, not change, you don't need to agree on anything.

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  • Practical approach and romantic mood

When designing an open balcony or loggia, you need to consider all its features. The unglazed balcony has no protection from the weather. In winter, you won't use it much. When choosing decor and furniture for it, prefer moisture- and frost-resistant materials. You need to think carefully about what furniture not just looks good, but survives precipitation and ultraviolet light. The same goes for flowers: they shouldn't be afraid of the sun and be too fragile.

But if you take care of the proper design of the balcony, breathing air and light, it can become a favorite place to relax. Drinking tea or coffee, enjoying reading an interesting book or a view of the city: moments of peace are especially valuable today. And the mini-garden on the balcony with its bright colors will lift your spirits even more.

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