Balconies as design components

Balcony with slit to create better air flow, White City, Tel Aviv.

I was in Tel Aviv earlier this year and took the Bauhaus tour around the ‘White City’. A UNESCO heritage site of over 4,000 buildings built in the 1930’s in a locally adapted form of International Style architecture. The tour was good and the guide went into some nice details about the nuances of the Israeli output of the modernist movement.

When these architects moved to Tel Aviv many of them were still learning their craft. Some had studied in the Bauhaus and moved to Israel with relatively little experience. They had a blank slate to build on (it was pretty much desert where Tel Aviv stands now apparently) and they had to put stuff up quick. This was due the the big influx of Jewish people during that period.

When they were creating these new buildings they were pretty much learning by doing. The temperature in Tel Aviv is hot and dry with very strong sun. Very different to the likes of Dessau where these students learned their trade. Try as they did to design for the heat and scorching sun the architects couldn’t fully understand how liveable these homes would be until they built them.

Tel Aviv is often called the city of balconies. Pretty much every residential building has (or *had) them. Thinking of balconies as design components it’s interesting how they evolved as the designers gained more experience and pushed to better meet user needs. In the early iterations of International Style homes in Tel Aviv the balconies were often impenetrable for the residents. They were hot and humid and weren’t fit for purpose. In some circumstances the term ‘cigarette balcony’ was coined, meaning they were useless for anything else other than having a quick cigarette on.

As the architects gained more experience and experimented with different designs they realised what they needed to do to make balconies more habitable spaces. The key was in creating better air flow. They did this by having slits in the balcony below knee level, thus enabling better air circulation around the space.

Balconies and buildings in the White City can look aesthetically different but the core ingredients for making a habitable balcony space remain the same. You can draw many parallels here with designing accessible components for the web. Sites can look different but the core elements that make them accessible and work shouldn’t be touched.

Someone I know was recently lamenting how most government websites now look like GOV.UK. The thing is many GOV.UK design patterns have been rigorously tested and are fit for purpose. It’s easy for teams doing similar projects to just copy this wholesale as they know it will do what they need it to do.

When this work is in the hands of more skilled designers they know they can tweak these patterns in different ways while still keeping the core aspects of the design that make these patterns work for everyone. Whether that’s big click areas, good contrast, clear typography or accessible code. The aesthetics are secondary and will evolve and change as people get more confident in understanding why good design is good design. It’s not just how it looks.

Just like those architects in 1930’s Tel Aviv, we’re learning as we go. Hopefully making things better for users with every iteration.

*Because their balconies weren’t useable many residents have simply walled them in in order to get more floor space in their apartment. This is the cause of great upset to the Tel Aviv city planners and architecture historians.

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