Over the years the Malta Environment & Planning Authority (MEPA) has been in the forefront to preserve and safeguard the traditional wooden balconies that are an icon within our towns and villages.
In 1996, the Authority launched a grant scheme that enables residents to apply for funds should they consider restoring or replacing their current balcony with a wooden one. The policy of the Authority has been to grant up to 60% of the costs involved but not more than €1397.62.
| Year || Localities || Beneficiaries |
| 1996|| Birgu, Bormla, l-Isla and Kalkara |
| 1999|| Birgu, Bormla, l-Isla and Kalkara |
| 2001|| Valletta and Floriana |
| 2002|| Birgu, Bormla, l-Isla and Kalkara |
| 2003|| Valletta and Floriana |
| 2004|| All NGO properties and Clubs in Malta and Gozo |
| 2006|| Siggiewi, Zejtun, Rabat (Gozo) and Scheduled properties |
| 2007|| All Urban Conservation Areas in Malta and Gozo and Scheduled properties |
The last grant scheme, as shown in the table above, which closed on the 15th January 2008, was issued in October 2007 for properties within Urban Conservation Areas in Malta and Gozo and any other scheduled property.
The main objectives of the scheme are:
• To conserve the historical/traditional/cultural element (the balcony) within the UCA and scheduled properties
• To enhance the streetscape/townscape (UCA)
• To provide an impetus for the regeneration of the urban fabric
• To safeguard the traditional craftsmanship and methods of construction of the balcony
• To serve as a prototype for future schemes
The assessment criteria relate to:
• design and proportions - replacement balcony is to be a replica (to replace like with like) of the existing one in terms of design, decorations and proportions. Where a wooden balcony is to replace an balcony having aluminium.masonry/steel material, the design should replicate adjacent balconies and should also be sympathetic to the design and period of the building. Decorations should be retained and reutilised.
• material - traditional materials (preferably red deal) should be used. Iroko is also acceptable since it is resilient to natural conditions. Marine plywood is not acceptable and this material can only be used for the roofing.
• craftsmanship - traditional craftsmanship and methods of construction are of significant importance. Joints (dove-tail), screws/dowels. detailing and panels are to be of traditional qualities.
• finishing - traditionally, balconies used to have a colour finishing. The most adequate protection consists of 2 coats primer, 1 coat undercoat, and 2 coats colour paint. The traditional colour is vienna green but most of the light colour schemes are also acceptable. Varnish finishing is not acceptable since it is not a traditional finishing and it does not offer adeqaute protection from the sunlight.
In the meantime, MEPA has also undertaken another initiative in order to enlarge its knowledge base regarding this traditional element. During December 2008, MEPA sent an invitation for a meeting to a number of carpenters that were involved in the grant scheme through the provision of their service to applicants. MEPA sent a total of 100 invitations and circa 25% replied. Eventually, a total of 18 meetings were carried out. These meetings proved very fruitful in establishing trust and a relationship with the carpenters. Additionally, MEPA officials were able to acquire new knowledge on the traditional techniques used in timber balcony construction. Moreover, carpenters were also able to detail the changes in traditional construction that are necessary in order to make the balcony more resistant to deterioration and general improvements. It is envisaged that in the near future, a short seminar will be organized by MEPA and other interested partners. The intention of this seminar is to further MEPA’s relationship with the service provider (the carpenter).
Another MEPA initiative is to set up an exhibition with MEPA premises. This exhibition is also intended to be used as a traveling exhibition so that it can be set up within the local council offices around Malta and Gozo. The intention is to raise awareness of the importance of using traditional materials, finishing and design.
SOME HISTORICAL FACTS
The earliest form of the balcony was of the open type and they were primarily used for military purposes. Later on, open balconies were incorporated within palaces and residential buildings. In ancient Egypt, the rulers used to exhibit themselves in royal balconies while in Greece, the balconies were an object of taxation and prohibition. Even in ancient Roman times, open balconies were used in residential buildings as illustrated in Villa Diana in Ostia.
There is little evidence pointing towards the exact period and location for the first closed wooden balconies. Such examples are very common within Arab and Islamic countries, and countires with Arab/Islamic influences. Although it is not certain when the closed timber box balconies were introduced in Malta, iconographic evidence suggests that such balconies appeared in the first half of the 18th Century. There is also documented evidence that the two large balconies within the Grand Master's Palace in Valletta were the first closed timber balconies in Malta.
This new element had a profound effect on the aesthetics of Maltese architecture since many balconies were added on to the facades of existing buildings while new buildings began to include wooden balconies especially during the 19th Century.
The popularity of the gallerija never waned since it provides a useful, semi-private space which helps in the climatic control of a building. However, in recent years, rising maintenance costs have resulted in the introduction of aluminum or stone copies of dubious aesthetic value which are slowly but surely having a deleterious effect on the appearance of our buildings and traditional townscape.
STORIES SURROUNDING THE WOODEN BALCONY
A place of attraction
Her hair was dark and sleek with blue black lights reflecting off it in the fading light of the afternoon. She had just finished watering the geraniums on the sill. Now she was drying her hair. She always washed her hair at this time. Well, not always, just recently really. Her mother was wondering why she was becoming so particular. Washing her hair and combing it dry every day. Thank God the days were getting longer and the breeze was delicate in the balmy summer evenings. That way, thought the mother, she would not catch a cold. The daughter knew of her mother's thoughts and smiled. She would make a catch, only it would be Salvu.
And the wooden balcony was just the right frame for her olive beauty.
A hiding place for detection
There he was for the whole week in a row. Always at the same time. Always the same man. Always the same routine. Drive up and down the street, park, smoke a cigarette then he would knock three times. It was those three thumps which had attracted her attention at first. Three knocks - like a signal the ripples of the sound waves agitated the stillness of the sultry afternoon. Then, quickly, the door would open and he would step in after a swift glance down the street. And quiet would descend again.
Each to his own affairs, thought Mari', as she closed the balcony window primly.
A stage for gladiators
Voices grew louder and eyes got beadier and soon the hawker was wishing he was in another street, in another village. They were looking belligerently at each other across a huge lampuka, each convinced that the other had arrived later in the queue. Like gladiators of yore, the two doughty matrons squared up to each other ready to do battle. After all this was food out of their children's mouths. The hawker looked furtively around for a means of escape. Then he looked up and smiled.
A ginger tom was taking a flying leap off the wooden balcony and on to the lampuka.
A gallery for inspection
They were good children, his flock. The Kappillan mused that even if his parish was small and rural, lacking the sophistication of the city he was accustomed to, it had the forthrightness of home-made wine. From this cool vantage point he gazed benignly on the children playing zibeg - Gakki was looking up covertly at him, sure sign that he was cheating. The Kappillan sighed. The apple did not fall too far from that tree. Gakki's mother already had to bear the shame of a drunken husband who never did an honest day's work and was so rowdy when in his cups. Not for the first time had he seen the lace curtains of the balconies twitching in curiosity. And he smiled - somewhere he had read that the balcony was a personal opera box on the street's theatre.