ARCHITECTURAL ICON: THE TRADITIONAL MALTESE BALCONY

March, 06, 2019

OVER THE PAST YEARS THE PLANNING AUTHORITY HAS BEEN AT THE FOREFRONT IN PROVIDING FINANCIAL GRANTS TO ASSIST PROPERTY OWNERS TO RESTORE THE FAÇADE OF THEIR RESIDENCE – INCLUDING THE TRADITONAL BALCONY. WHAT MAKES THIS ARCHITECTURAL ICON SO UNIQUE?

The Maltese closed wooden balcony is one of the most traditional elements within our historic urban landscape and a vital and influential feature within the local streetscape.  However, the closed wooden balcony is not only found in the Maltese Islands but also in other Mediterranean countries. Its lineage is attributed to North African countries especially Morocco since it is here that the closest resemblance can be established.  The ‘Muxrabija’ window is another element considered to be the predecessor of the closed balcony and which also has its origins firmly rooted in Arabic and North African custom.

Originally, balconies within the Maltese context were of the open stone type. The best and most ornate examples are found in l-Gharb and Victoria, Gozo.  However, they can also be found within late medieval villages especially in the south of Malta.  The original balcony underwent a series of alterations aimed at making it more functional adding to it local variations prevalent of the period through the introduction of new materials and designs.  A number of variations were also introduced aimed at exposing the difference in the social status.

It was only through the increased availability and affordability of wood in the local market, sometime in the early 17th century that popularity for the closed wooden balcony propagated and increased in numbers most especially by the well-to-do in Valletta, the Three Cities and palazzos in the towns and villages.  During the 19th century, under the British rule, increased importation and greater affordability of wood made it easier for the masses to afford a closed wooden balcony.  This helped create a new type of craft ‘guild’; that of the wooden balcony carpenter.

Variations in designs and proportions specific to each craftsman are often represented by the repetition of certain features of closed wooden balconies.  The balcony was indicative of the status of the owner or occupants, with the larger and more elaborate examples afforded by the wealthy and simpler ones for the masses.  Further alterations and the introduction of new materials have jeopardized the delicately balanced proportions of the wooden balconies and their relation to traditional facades and the historic urban landscape as well.  The same may be said about open balconies having wrought iron railings, introduced during the Knight’s period and in use till today. 

The late 20th century introduction of aluminum proved to be very popular since it provided a much cheaper alternative to wood and wrought iron.  In fact, there have been numerous instances where closed wooden balconies and other apertures within the façade were replaced with aluminum ones of inferior design and proportions.  This practice severely depreciated the traditional urban characteristics and streetscape of the Maltese villages. 

Over the years, the Planning Authority has issued a number of timber balcony grant schemes and more recently the Irrestwra Darek scheme to encourage property owners to conserve their balconies and where necessary replace them into one made out of traditional materials.