Istanbul, COVID-19, and the importance of balconies

As millions of people in Istanbul and throughout the country have been confined to their homes during the COVID-19 epidemic, the balcony has acquired a new status in urban Turkey.

My balcony in Istanbul's Kurtuluş neighborhood measures 50 cm from the door to its edge, barely enough room to place a chair. Just a stone's throw away is a row of buildings as far as the eye can see. The floor is perpetually dirty due to the obsessive cleaning habits of my upstairs neighbor, who hangs up laundry above me nearly every day and beats rugs and other fabrics constantly, unleashing clouds of dust and dirt downward. 

But it's better than nothing. There is enough space to step out and look up toward the sky, where seagulls hellbent on remaining inland circle just above the roofs of buildings, upon which they raise their young. In the gardens that fill the gap between, one stretch of shrubs has sprouted yellow-white blossoms while small orange loquats bloom from the tree next door. 

On the last weekend lockdown, I noticed that the opposite neighbors below on the ground floor had set up a projection screen on the wall of their backyard and had gathered for movie night. The next day, as they enjoyed a smoke, I realized I was out of cigarettes and wanted one. Being unable to leave the house, I asked them if they could spare a few by handing them off to my downstairs neighbors. They weren't home, but these generous souls were committed to helping me and tied up a pack of cigarettes in a bag with a plastic water bottle, hurling it up toward my balcony. (It missed the mark, but my neighbors brought it over when they came home). 

As millions of people in Istanbul and throughout the country have been confined to their homes during the COVID-19 epidemic, the balcony has acquired a new status in urban Turkey, and architect Onur Atay recently gave a brilliant Youtube lecture in Turkish on that very topic, unpacking its importance and cultural significance in the cities of these lands.

I spoke with Atay about some of the more intriguing points he raised, particularly a prominent attitude among religious conservatives suggesting that the balcony has no place in Turkish society, which he chalks up to religious notions of privacy. 

“There is the issue of mahrem in Islam, which can be described as the 'protecting and controlling the visibility (of mostly women) in the family scale.' Anatolian Islam cannot be interpreted as utilizing a harsh execution of mahrem, yet the term is still accurate for many,” Atay said. 

Apartments built with balconies in Istanbul and other major cities have been enclosed with window framing for this reason, as well as by those who simply prefer to increase the inner space of their homes and create an extra room. All of the balconies in one of the buildings across from mine have been closed off in such a fashion. 

Nevertheless, in a crowded city of 16 million suffocating in concrete where even the sight of a few trees can appear to be a mirage, balconies have become as important as ever, and the COVID-19 epidemic has only served to highlight this reality, Atay argues.

“Regarding the rising temperatures on a yearly basis, our way of living, the lack of green spaces or rising scarcity of social spaces in the public sphere, we definitely need our own 'open spaces' either shared or individual,” Atay said, adding that many people are building their own 'pirate balconies' as we speak. 

Atay also touched on how balconies are an indispensable part of urban culture in Turkey's Çukurova region, a vast stretch of fertile land that straddles the southern Mediterranean coast. The architect grew up in the coastal city of Mersin, on Çukurova's western edge. 

“I love to call Çukurova the Middle East Riviera, since the historical seaside settlements there date to early antiquity and there was always a multicultural compound in Adana, Mersin and Hatay, including many different communities like Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Muslims. The communities are unfortunately not visible now, yet you can still understand the mutualism from the common cultural aspects today,” Atay said. 

Adana, Mersin and Hatay all indeed still retain strong elements of cosmopolitanism and region-specific urban identities. The surrounding nature and landscapes are beautiful, fruitful and inspiring, though the weather reaches scorching levels between May and September. In his lecture, Atay explained that even favela-style gecekondu buildings in this part of the country are outfitted with balconies, a necessity to endure the blazing summers. 

“We can speak of a shared culture or a cultural umbrella for these communities, which could be projected as a calm, laid-back and friendly way of daily life with the very hot and dry weather during summertime. This brings to us the need for a semi-open space that can provide fresh air and breeze for any, a balcony,” Atay said of Çukurova. 

Atay, who currently lives in a handsome historic building in Istanbul's Kadıköy district, enjoys a spacious balcony that glances out over the leafy garden shared with several other apartments. It has become his refuge during busy work-from-home days. 

“Our balcony saved us! It has become a mandatory component for us rather than a social luxury. A balcony is almost like a stage that we can perform our daily lives in a less private zone. Therefore, it wouldn't be wrong if I said that these last months introduced us to our neighbors, their daily routines and even their pets.” 

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