Open versus enclosed balconies as a disruption of taste and class

Bogdan Iancu

 

The frequent option for an open balcony or terrace, full of flowers and leisure furniture marks a radical shift from the local middle class’ options of the mid 2000s. The enthusiasm for double-glazed windows at the time gave rise to a mass phenomenon of enclosure of balconies and loggias. In most cases when somebody was buying an apartment, the first step of its renovation was beginning (and sometimes ended as well) with the fitting of double glazed windows (Iancu 2011). A similar step was taken for closing the balcony, a common practice in socialist Romania. After 2005, double-glazed windows had become such a valued social status indicator, that they entered pop culture by means of a music hit of those times: “Termopane, termopane!” of artist Florin Chilian.

Once this era ended, these balconies become recently part of a wider universe of domestic material culture which the members of the middle class start to leave behind, sometimes as an explicit statement to part with the materialities associated with post-socialist transition (considered to be domestic improvements motivated by necessity) but also stimulated by the offer of Ikea and other home improvement stores.

The open balcony becomes, in some cases, a metaphor for an absent garden. One of my interlocutors has developed a whole greening project focused on his balcony, which included its paving with waterproof deck and pots of flowers and herbs. Simultaneously, the balcony becomes a refuge for smokers trying to protect their children from second-hand smoke.

On such balconies/terraces, the storage spaces are absent or diminished in size in favour of new items signalling leisure-time activities as a similar phenomenon described by Fehervary (2012) for a Hungarian city. Objects are stored in garages or improvised closets and pantries. The neighbours who shift away from this type of representation are severely criticised on the residential Facebook groups through rituals of public shaming rebuking the “inappropriate” (to read: as in the socialist period or as – as one of the inhabitants posted) use of balcony – “in a ghetto”).

Far from suggesting that the decision to abandon socialist apartment buildings for the new buildings with open terraces is the only driver for residential change, affirmations of my interlocutors do indicate that the double-glazed enclosed balcony has ceased to embody the “respectable material standards” (Patico 2008) of middle-class identities and aspirations, making more and more obvious the symbolic dichotomy between the socialist apartment building and the new residential ensembles.

References: Fehervary, K. (2012), “Postsocialist Middle Classes and the New “Family House” in Hungary”, in R. Heiman, C. Freeman and M. Liechty (eds), The global middle classes: theorizing through ethnography. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press. Pp. 117-144

Iancu, B. (2011), “The Golden Age of Termopane. The Social Life of Post‐Socialist Windows”, Martor, 16, pp. 19‐33.

Patico J. (2008), Consumption and Social Change in a Post-Soviet Middle Class. Stanford, CA and Washington, DC: Stanford University and Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

 

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A “house with picket fences” and other forms of escape of the middle class

Bogdan Iancu

In a conversation with Vlad Odobescu for Scena9 in which I elaborated on the research agenda of our project, I also mentioned Vama Veche hit – “Vreau sa ajung la radio” . Launched ten years ago, this is one of the few local works of popular culture in which the defining characteristics of the middle class are presented (the notable exceptions are Radu Muntean’s films Boogie și Marți după Crăciun ). The song, I explained in this conversation, speaks about the next dream, which crystallizes once the credit card made possible the older dreams (e.g. espresso machine, flat screen TV). This is the dream of escaping from the city and living an autonomous life in the proximity of nature. This is the dream of a “house with picket fences”, an expression that a TV commercial made famous in Romania). The song calls this a dream that got smashed in thousands of installments. In the recent years, articles about how these housing aspirations and projects can be undermined have started to appear (one example can be found here.

To return to the post-material dreams, the character that the song speaks about is not a kid who wants to get to the radio, as we may believe, but an adult who wants to escape from the routine, a while colour worker who dreams of a creative job, next to his girlfriend who wants to become an actress. We encountered these representations of cultural capital during our research as well, however in an actualized form, from attending courses in humanities and cultural studies that different foundations and universities offer to taking tango lessons and enrolling in training programs in traditional crafts (pottery, sculpture, gastronomy). This inventory has recently been supplemented with investments in forms of economy (sporting) of experience: subscriptions to flourishing riding centers or the passion for yachting. I will discuss  the “escapes” that tourism provides during the holiday season in a future blog post.

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