Beirut’s Balconies: The Transformation of Urban Residential Culture
During our research about the changing usage of balconies in Beirut’s residential buildings, we encountered a circular issued by the Ministry of Finance that recalls the various legal amendments that today regulate the process of closing off open areas in new and old buildings. The circular, issued 1 December 2015, addresses estimating the rental value of residential buildings:
Construction Law no. 646, dated 11 December 2004, legalized the closure of balconies with all kinds of moving transparent glass panes, including those furnished with colored aluminum frames. Hence, the areas of these balconies have become suited to be [counted] among the property units’ usable or exploitable areas.
In December 2004, the amendments introduced to the 1983 Construction Law initially posed the possibility of closing off balconies only with “moving shutters” that are “manufactured from transparent, uncolored materials and placed on the balconies like traditional curtains”. Despite its simplicity, this proposal promptly opened the door for changes to the city’s architectural fabric on a broad scale encompassing both existing buildings and new projects. Since the circular was issued, new projects have worked to install glass panels around the open areas therein. As for the old buildings, closing off the balconies became an available option permitted at the residents’ discretion. Before 2004, even though closed balconies had appeared in the capital, the main facades of residential buildings remained untouched by these radical changes as they were still illegal. However, at that time other spontaneous practices by residents could be observed, practices such as replacing steel door frames with moving aluminum ones and replacing external wall-mounted lights for hanging ones, in addition to the changes in the color of facades and their cladding materials, the opening up and removal of external shading, and the repair of damages from Lebanon’s long war. Lastly, another class of changes, one that traces back to an older era (the 1960s), was the raising of some balconies’ handrailing mainly to protect children.
But the only practice reminiscent of the 2004 law’s provisions, as a matter of closing off the balconies and protection rather than changing the function of the exterior area, is the installation of steel bars on balconies or windows to avert robbery as the crime rate rose during the war. Seeking protection, many ground-floor and first-floor residents sacrificed the outside view by forsaking the usual practices in the balcony space. Thus, the balkun or faranda (as it is called in the Lebanese dialect) transformed from an intermediate area between the apartment and city into a room with a less lively usage. Similarly, the handrail, having lost its role as an armrest, stopped providing any tangible interaction between the user and the balcony. The inevitable comparison with an animal cage or prison cell was enough to keep residents away from an edge they once frequented. From another angle, the area liable to accumulate dust became larger because of the height of the steel bars, which complicated traditional cleaning efforts that were being forsaken anyway because of water shortages. Thus, this external space, closed to the image of the city during the war, became more of a neglected area left to its fate, disliked and avoided by its residents.
However, this paradigm of forced closure only resembles the current practices arising from the 2004 law via the general principle of separating the exterior from the interior. What, then, is the difference between yesteryear and today? The hostile city environment, which previously pushed residents to seclude themselves inside, is now no longer even a consideration; rather, it has come to be dismissed or has disappeared. Instead of stemming from the idea of withdrawing from the city, the conversion of exterior into interior area in the present day is a sign of total separation from not just the city but also the immediate surroundings, i.e. the building containing the residential unit. This separation has three dimensions:
Firstly, the closure represents a physical separation from the surroundings. This separation occurs via the highlighting of the city’s negative and unwanted aspects in order to justify this process of closing oneself off or introversion. For example, the neighborhood’s ugly construction, the air pollution, the long heatwaves, and forsaking the hobby of growing houseplants all become arguments paving the way for this separation process.
The second dimension appears in the relationship with the architectural surroundings, i.e. the building itself. Citizens’ general lack of care for architecture and the abandonment of – or contempt for – anything considered “old”, as well as the conviction that any attempted renovation inevitably bears additional aesthetic value, are all elements that serve only to reinforce this choice.
The third dimension of this separation is doubtlessly its direct indication of the exaggerated importance residents place in personal space at the expense of common space or the building’s external appearance. Rather than adapting the demands of daily life to the nature of the apartment, a trend to the contrary prevails consisting in imposing the image of the ideal home on any constructed area irrespective of the building’s suitability. The family’s desire to expand the reception area, create a sitting room, or even to create a maid’s room (which is not available in mid-sized apartments) turns into an indispensable need. And as the exterior areas are assigned the greatest burden, the assumption that there is some deficiency in the apartment’s fundamental design, the decline of the culture of preserving old architecture amid the construction boom, the hegemony of luxury home models, and separation from the city become constants that derive from this new law greater legitimacy that consolidates introversion and entrenches its foundations in society.
The Story of One Residential Building
To clarify what things have come to, I shall now examine one of the residential buildings in a suburb near Beirut. This five-story building was erected in 1963 and holds 12 apartments occupied mostly by their owners. Until recently, the building’s facade retained its original appearance, characterized by harmony between empty and filled spaces whose volumes were treated with the so-called scratched coating common in Beirut’s architecture at the time. This manipulation of volumes was crowned with a metal handrail with simple geometrics that delineated, in an attractive manner, the balconies of the two apartments overlooking the main street from each floor.
The first breach of this cohesion in the distinctive geometric composition may have been the addition of opaque fabric curtains as moving dividers. Such dividers are found on thousands of balconies in Beirut. This paradigm for separating the interior from the exterior in this building in Sin al-Fil, as in other buildings, traces back to the second half of the 1970s. Initially, these curtains were placed on the main balcony as an alternative to the internal aluminum blinds that had accompanied the glass doors and facades since the building’s construction. After these metal blinds dilapidated, they were replaced with internal fabric curtains that were more practical according to many residents. In this way, the original blinds were eliminated and replaced from the inside and outside too with simpler and tougher curtains that ensure the balcony can be used comfortably: during summer, according to one of the old residents, these external curtains not only provide protection from the sun but also protect the family from snooping gazes when holding family dinners outside or when one of the male residents takes a nap bare-chested or in his underwear, a habit that is becoming less socially acceptable. Later, the external curtains began to be used on kitchen balconies too, where the family amasses all kinds of belongings. Despite being a storage area or a new private area, the covered balconies continued to be considered an exterior area, as the same resident stated.
However, the arrival of a new buyer to one of the top-floor apartments in 2017 would completely change the situation. After hard labor that included demolishing walls, removing old tiles, and changing the doors and windows, the new owner proposed removing the handrail on the main facade and replacing it with transparent barriers as seen in modern real estate projects. The new owner, proud of his expenses on his project, conveyed this idea to the other residents via a WhatsApp message: “For the sake of closing off the balconies in a cohesive manner, I propose the following design”. Before even asking his neighbors whether they intended to make changes to their apartments’ exterior areas, the new neighbor seemed totally convinced that this measure was inevitable. However, the anticipated cost of this ambitious project was enough to discourage residents. The new owner was compelled to restore the handrail to its previous state, albeit with a minor modification to its original position in order to install the aluminum frame separating the expanded apartment from the exterior. These changes, both small and large, began to induce the other residents who had praised the proposal to change the facade to follow the paradigm of the top-floor project by demolishing the walls separating their sitting room from the exterior. Besides this example’s indication of a prevalent belief that the exterior areas need to be eliminated from the city’s homes, some of the stances of this Sin al-Fil building’s residents, relayed verbally or in writing via the building committee’s reports on the topic of closing off the balconies, also bear important indications. Most importantly, they indicate that the majority of residents disavowed any intervention or initiative to stop works that could break up the unity of the facade because of the new owner’s project, not to mention the others’ indifference toward the subject to begin with. Under the pretense of respecting the freedom of the new owner, who they felt was not hurting anyone, they indirectly expressed that they had no connection to the building’s aesthetics nor even any need to manage its changes. In their words, if someone objects to works undertaken by another owner, that owner could later prevent them from using the communal sections for additional water tanks, intervene in what they do with their balconies, or object to any other proposal. Other owners concluded that closing off the balconies one day or another is the only solution for restoring cohesion to the building’s facade, which they said had become “poor” because of the use of exterior curtains. While the metal handrails and the building’s original shape would be preserved, “one day the balconies will need to be closed off”.
Is the amendment to the Construction Law therefore the main driver of this increasing tendency to close off these balconies? Answers provided by a group of residents of buildings from the pre-war era in various neighborhoods of Beirut were an indication of the change of these customs, which have become deeply rooted today in Lebanon’s urban residential culture. While permitting the closure of the balconies was, in the beginning, a solution for using them during winter or installing air conditioners on them during summer, it is transforming into a semidirect call for introversion under the influence of modern and luxury projects, which have become a source of inspiration for thousands of Lebanese families. The balconies of modern apartments, which are designed to be closed off with glass panels from the projects’ outset before they are even occupied, inspire new ways of using exterior areas. As for the rehabilitation or renovation of the apartments in buildings from the 1950s to 1970s, it will inevitably follow the aesthetic standards being reestablished by this paradigm of modern design in the new, closed-off buildings.
The linguistic and semantic evolution of the terms the public uses in this context draws attention. The simple formulation “installing glass” [tarkib al-zujaj, or ta’ziz in the Lebanese dialect] was long used even before the amendment to the Construction Law. Thereafter, the term “closing off” the area [ighlaq, or taskir in the Lebanese dialect] became widespread in something of an acceptance of cutting oneself off from the outside. Recently, as any feeling of guilt associated with this closure vanishes, most residents of the city have adopted the expression “eliminating” the balcony [ilgha’].
In the latest stage of this linguistic evolution, the term “opening up the balcony” [fath al-shurfa] marks a complete change in the established meaning of the term “opening”: in order to reutilize the balcony, which this modern logic considers a room like any other in the house, the solution is to open it up to the interior so that it may be used as an additional space. The residents thereby stop searching for a meaning for the balcony in external space, and it transforms into a mere extension of the vast reception rooms that characterize Beirut’s apartments.
From an essential exterior area of the home to a neglected space snapped up by the interior areas, the balconies of buildings today reflect residents’ diverse – or even contradictory – practices that are complicating the landscape of Lebanon’s major cities. While we usually attribute the tendency towards closure to the hostile nature of the external environment, this choice also indicates a preference for introversion and withdrawal in urban culture today, which produces a perpetual rejection of other people. A balanced analysis of the two hypotheses remains key for reaching a correct understanding of this phenomenon.
Keywords: Lebanon, Beirut, Construction, Building, Balconies, Introversion, Residents
 Minister of Finance Circular no. 4414 of 1 December 2015 – “al-Mut’alliq bi-I’tibar Misahat al-Shurfat min dimna Misahat al-Wahda lada Taqdir al-Qiyam al-Ta’jiriyya” (“On Considering the Area of Balconies Part of the Area of the Unit When Estimating Rental Values”).
 Law no. 646 of 11 December 2004 amending Legislative Decree no. 148 of 16 September 1983 (the Construction Law).
 Article 14 (surface exploitation rate and general exploitation factor) of Law no. 646. Amendment of Legislative Decree no. 148 of 16 September 1983, 11 December 2004.