Things were looking up for Sally Norman. Last October, she and her boyfriend, Jordan Parker, had saved enough to start renting their own place. They left their parents' houses and moved into a little first-floor flat in New Maker Yards, a development of 850 flats in Manchester.
Norman, who is 26, quit her job as a print manager in January to study interior design at Salford University, a dream she'd had for years. She got a part-time job as a sales assistant. "We absolutely loved the flat, and didn't really notice the space," she recalls. "We were out all the time and just came home to eat and sleep."
Then came lockdown in late March, and a growing sense of envy as the confined couple looked up at the flats on higher floors. "We'd come back from our daily walk, not wanting to go home, and look at everyone sitting out," she says. "They all had balconies and looked so happy."
Balconies had become a symbol of urban living in extremis - a joyful escape pod for millions. There were viral videos of Italians serenading each other from their balconies, a Dublin housing estate playing balcony bingo, and entire tower blocks erupting in balcony-borne applause for doctors and nurses.
In April, Paola Agnelli and Michele D'Alpaos locked eyes across a deserted street during a balcony concert in Verona. "The music was like an arrow fired by Eros," Agnelli, a lawyer, said at the time. They found each other on Instagram and each asked the DJ who was playing in the same building every evening to dedicate songs to the other.
When restrictions eased, the couple eventually met on a park bench. If love in the time of corona - in the home of Romeo and Juliet - seems too good to be true, Instagram suggests otherwise; the couple, it appears, were sharing a pedalo only last month.
Norman and Parker were soon demanding their share of the balcony dream. A month after Norman sent an email to her landlord, Get Living, which rents out 3,000 homes in Manchester and London, they moved to an eighth-floor flat that was identical except that it had a balcony - and a higher rent.
"It was so weird because even the furniture was exactly the same but the whole place just felt so different - so much lighter and bigger," she says. The balcony came with a little outdoor table and chairs and pushed their rent up by £85 to £1,050 a month. The couple have since added a weatherproof rug and several plants.
"Every morning now I step out and drink my coffee, and then we get the sun from about 2pm until it sets," she adds, unconcerned that the view immediately below her is of a gasworks. "It's like having another room, even just to get a breather from each other. It's made us both happier."
Six months after peak lockdown, as cities face the prospect of returning restrictions, developers and architects are catching up. Bigger, better - and more numerous - balconies are now at the centre of new projects.
"We're definitely seeing an increasing proportion of balconies to apartment numbers," says Nick Haughton at Sapphire Balconies. Sapphire, Britain's largest balcony manufacturer, will make 5,000 of them this year.
Haughton is also seeing early signs of a shift away from fake balconies. For almost a decade, design standards set by the mayor of London, which are increasingly being adopted elsewhere, have required new flats to include at least 5 sq metres of private outdoor space for each person in a two-person home, and another 1 sq metre for each additional occupant.
But developers can blur these requirements by installing french windows behind a juliet balcony - effectively a floor-to-ceiling window with a safety railing - and classing the internal space in front of the doors as outdoor space, or a "winter garden". "Now we're seeing that trend being hit on the head," Haughton says.
Balcony design is also changing. There had been a growing trend for more private balconies, with opaque screening between them, or balconies enclosed within a building's exterior wall. "The screens we're dealing with now in pre-planning are lower and more transparent," Haughton says.
The change comes as part of a wider, post-Covid move toward more communal living, also including shared gardens. Several of the designs shortlisted last month in the government-run Home of 2030 competition featured shared outdoor dining and planting space as well as balconies.
Ian Gibbs, the director of neighbourhoods at Get Living, which has a further 7,000 flats at various stages of development, says the company is rethinking "interior" balconies. "The preference is definitely moving to the true sense of a balcony where you can step out of your home," he says. © Provided by The GuardianA man plays the violin from a Berlin balcony in March. Photograph: Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters
As architectural features, balconies have an unusually rich cultural history. Yet the most famous balcony of all - Juliet's - never existed, even on paper. Nor could it have done; balconies were unheard of in Shakespeare's England of the late 16th century (the English word didn't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1618).
It was colder then, but the balconies of the continent, including in Italy, were also seen by early gentleman travellers to be scandalously exposed to the public gaze. In The Elements of Architecture, a 1624 treatise by Henry Wotton, perhaps the first architecture critic, who travelled widely in Florence and Rome, there was "in no Habitations lesse privacie" than those of the Italians.
Shakespeare's "balcony scene", which mentions only a more modest window in the text, came from the later play Caius Marius by Thomas Otway, set in ancient Rome, which borrowed heavily from Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare's text mentions only a more modest window. The "balcony scene" became fixed in public consciousness through a later play, Caius Marius, by Thomas Otway, which is set in ancient Rome and borrowed heavily from Romeo and Juliet.
Modern balconies quickly developed a significance beyond their square footage, setting a stage for papal addresses, royal waves and the holidaying aspirations of the masses. Eva Perón, Michael Jackson and Julian Assange have all - with mixed fortunes - realised the symbolic power of the balcony.
They were a key feature of the postwar boom in often visionary social housing blocks, which got taller and taller from the 1950s. But their reputation is tied up with the failures of some of those towers; balconies are too often withered like unpicked tomatoes, becoming neglected or used as outdoor cupboards. They are impractical on the high floors of the wind-whipped residential skyscrapers of the present era, and can be jettisoned altogether by developers more concerned by loopholes and profits than happy residents.
If we are now entering a golden age for the balcony, Isabelle Palmer's diary is testament to it. Managing to anticipate this moment and the contemporary houseplant craze, she set up shop as The Balcony Gardener in 2009. Business has been good, but it went to another level this year. © Provided by The GuardianThe papacy has long promoted the balcony. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images
"I had so many inquiries where people were, like: 'Can you please come and help me with plants, we're desperate to have somewhere nice to sit outside,'" says Palmer, who enjoys sitting with a coffee and a newspaper on her own plant-festooned balcony in south-west London. With yet more serendipity, her latest book, Modern Container Gardening, came out in early March.
Palmer's new clients have added herb pots, fake grass and climbing plants. She also advises them on screening, planters and furniture. "I design a balcony as I would any room," she says. "And if there's something in the bedroom or living space next to it - a nice colour in a painting or some cushions - I'll extend that outside."
Palmer has had no reports of love taking root on her clients' balconies, but Otway was not the last writer to exploit their romantic potential - Roald Dahl's Esio Trot also centres on a balcony romance. The author Fiona Woodifield has long been fascinated by them, and even had a doll's house with a balcony as a child. She took inspiration from the rediscovery of balconies this year to write a romcom novel, which is due to be published this November.
In Love in Lockdown, written under her nom de plume Chloe James, twentysomethings Jack and Sophia meet on their previously unused balconies during a clap for the NHS. Her flat is one below his, with no view between them. They fall in love without seeing each other and much of the dialogue happens between their balconies. (The booth-based Netflix dating show and lockdown hit Love Is Blind was a secondary inspiration.)
At the same time, the entire block of residents, who had communed largely on WhatsApp if at all, develop a wider web of connection between the little social stages attached to their homes, which face a courtyard. "There was a wartime spirit during lockdown - of people facing a common enemy - and I wanted the balconies to become a space for everyone to come together," Woodifield says.
In Manchester, Norman and Parker's block is filling up and they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of tenants on the balconies either side of theirs. "I think we'd happily chat away," she says. In the meantime, the novelty of their new space - and new life together - is not fading with summer. "We've been sitting out having a glass of wine as the sun goes down and thinking: 'Yeah, we definitely made the right decision,'" she says.
Gallery: Street art in Berlin (dw.com)