For people in sunny, generally southern countries like Spain or Italy, balconies are highly important. People use them to sunbathe, hang their washing, read, gossip or smoke so the apartment doesn’t smell bad. But the situation is different in Kyiv. Architect and photographer Oleksandr Burlaka examines the historic, legal, visual and emblematic meaning of balconies, a symbol of DIY and repair culture in post-Soviet Ukraine, through his book Balcony Chic, published by Osnovy Publishing.
“Photography is an inseparable part of my architecture practice,” explains Oleksandr. “I work with exhibition design and I’ve noticed that these simple non-architectural parts influence my work and help me find simple and working solutions,” he concludes. Focusing on the aliveness of architecture at the hands of people’s needs, who redesign and repurpose elements according to what’s best of them, the Ukrainian architect and photographer has been documenting DIY balconies for several years. The result is a beautiful photo book compiling some of the most interesting, bizarre, beautiful and representative balconies he’s encountered across the country. Today, we speak with Oleksandr to reflect on the importance of DIY culture and how balconies have gained importance during the quarantine.
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Since you’re interested in architecture, you turn your photographic lens towards cities, their buildings, and details of those buildings. In Balcony Chic, you focus on, precisely, balconies – a very characteristic feature of Kyiv’s and Ukraine’s urban landscape, but also illegal elements. When did you first become interested in them?
The inconsistency between buildings amuses or annoys architects depending on the building itself and how the architect sees ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ in edifications. Still, an architect’s eye focuses on details. I started working with photography in the late 2000s shooting small parts of self-made buildings and redesigned elements – things that reflected how architecture was alive and flexible in people’s hands and adapted to people’s needs. As time went by, my interest shifted to bigger forms – especially to the modern conditions of Soviet architecture. But the details of vernacular changes both inside the city and outside of it moved to Instagram as a training for my eyes/gaze. When Osnovy Publishing proposed me to make a book about balconies, I already had enough material to start the research.
During my research about Soviet architecture in Ukraine, I heard a story about architect Pavlo Nirinberg. He designed a residential area in Dnipro in the 1980s, and all of his buildings had balconies in the form of a triangle canvas. He made the balconies that way to make it really hard for people to redesign them. I wanted to see those buildings immediately. I was amazed by how this battle that was won dozens of years ago illustrates the inconsistency between plans and reality, and a conflict between architectural projects and life.
I’d like to know a bit about the balcony of the place(s) where you grew up as a child/teenager. How was it like? Did you help build some parts of it? What did you use it for?
The apartment where I grew up is on the building’s 16th floor, which was constructed in the 1970s from cement blocks. Of course, our balcony was hand-made by my father. I know that, back then, people also used to dig root cellars in nearby slopes where they saved groceries for the winter – apples, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, etc. I remember there was a big closet on our balcony. It was mostly impossible to open it because other stuff got in the way, and I never got to know what was in there – perhaps old magazines and stuff like that.
Another story is about how we looked after this balcony. The wooden frames had some cracks, so water could leak in when it rained. Also, birds made nests on it. In the summer, the balcony windows were always open, but my father could leave his work earlier to go home and close them when it was raining because a strong wind could break them. In the winter, the frame cracks were pasted over with paper to minimize the cold. Potatoes and other groceries that we kept on the balcony were moved into the apartment because it could be too cold for them there. I grew up in the 1990s. It was a time of economic crisis and instability, so people relied on their own savings and usually made everything with their own hands to survive.
When you first moved out of your childhood home, did you build your own balcony in the new place?
I’m living in an apartment with two glazed balconies, but I didn’t build them myself. I don’t even know for which purpose one of them was initially built. It’s 0,8 metres wide and 11 metres long. I don’t know if it’s ok to remove the glazing and throw it away. I guess I’ll wait for the development of recycling technologies in Kyiv.
The book you’ve published with Osnovy is titled Balcony Chic. I guess you’re playing with humour as many of the balconies are self-made and look rough/DIY – while ‘chic’ is often linked to luxury, glamour and wealth. From your perspective, where is the ‘chicness’ in those balconies?
A balcony is not a necessary part of the apartment from the residents’ point of view. Its space is counted with a 0,3 coefficient during the purchase process – that’s why many people try to increase the space of the apartment through winterising the balcony. This new look is ritz. Meanwhile, the battle between balconies escalates on the facade of the building because everyone wants to make theirs bigger and fancier.
One time, the head of a condominium whose balconies I photographed asked me what interested me about them. She shared her personal impression that the bigger the apartment, the bigger the balcony its residents are trying to construct. Funny thing is that often, people don’t really like how the facades look like in general, but their own balcony is the best, they love it.
The Kyiv City Council wants to ban self-made balconies on the facades of historic buildings. However, those balconies haven’t been an issue until recently. Why do you think the government has changed its mind now? What’s your point of view on this?
In general, the balcony issue is deeper and influenced by more global factors than just municipal verdicts. New orders and news from local authorities come up from time to time, but this process is more election-related. The redesigns were and still are illegal under the laws on the protection of monuments, but as long as these laws are not very well-defined, and the supervisory authorities do not go to court with specific cases, everything will remain the same. The problem is that the citizens with huge balconies in the buildings of the historic city centre are the ones who make the laws and work as officials.
Additionally, according to the documents, in our capital there are illegal shopping centres, churches, offices and huge 25-storey residential complexes. But for developers, this is the normal course of the game: you pay for permits and fines to start the construction, sell the apartments, freeze the construction, give bribes, win lawsuits, intimidate or bribe activists, and make profit. Then, add a couple more floors.
Now that we’ve been quarantined, balconies have become a liminal space between the public and the private – you’re at home, you can do whatever you want there, but you’re also on public sight. In Italy or Spain, countries with good weather and Mediterranean spirit, people have ‘gathered’ in balconies, sang together, played instruments, bingo, etc. What role have balconies played in Kyiv and Ukraine during the pandemic?
Generally speaking, it’s very interesting to see how the function of a balcony has become so relevant in modern conditions. We can assume that the fight against the spread of tuberculosis influenced the spread of balconies in public housing projects in the past. Now, balconies are useful again. But our quarantine wasn’t as strict as in Italy or Spain. Some people were self-isolated and spent time on the balconies, indeed.
I spent two months at my summer house, which is another element of urban planning whose evolution can be linked to the spread of villa construction in Italy during the plague. In Ukraine, people built balconies during quarantine, I believe. Many people even spend their holidays doing repairs or completing their summer house. Repair as a phenomenon is an important feature of self-identification for post-Soviet Ukrainian society; it’s like an average US citizen wanting a house downtown.
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