Architecture: The in and out club

When Julian Assange addressed his public from a balcony, he chose a platform employed to effect by popes, politicans and pop stars

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The Independent Culture

He drew back a net curtain and stepped on to the balcony to be greeted by applause and cheers, as if he had already performed. Perhaps we should give Julian Assange the benefit of the doubt. Where else could he have spoken from the small embassy to which he has confined himself?

A badly lit video message would have made him look guilty, a written statement would have been boring, a speech on the doorstep would have earned him a police escort to Sweden, where he faces questioning over sex assault claims, which he denies.

The balcony scene suited his script perfectly: elevated; detached; commanding; and protected behind ornate balustrading and the cloak of Ecuador's flag.

With it, Assange realised the dramatic potential of an architectural feature that has been a stage for romance, tragedy, triumph and odd behaviour.

Since the time of the Romans and before, balconies have played host to speeches and exhortations. They are not only elevated but stand neither within nor without the buildings from which their occupants emerge. You can look up at the Pope or Kate Middleton, you can get tantalisingly close, but, like the police at the embassy, you can't touch them.

Assange, who criticised the US for its "witchhunt" for whistleblowers while failing to mention the reason for his Ecuadorian asylum (those pesky assault allegations), was evidently channeling Eva Peró*, the Argentinian First Lady played by Madonna in Evita. Political balcony scenes have also featured Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan leader.

But, as The Independent observed yesterday, the other – less glorious – Assange script left him inviting ridicule rather than awe. There were the physical comparisons to John Inman ("I'm not free," he might have said) while, in the balcony context, the scene owed more to Monty Python's Life of Brian than Evita ("'E's not the Messiah! 'E's a very naughty boy!") or perhaps the most bizarre of balcony scenes – the 2002 Michael Jackson baby-dangle.

Juliet balconies, which barely protrude enough to support a sun lounger, have leant cosmetic prestige to British building facades since the late Georgian period (one imagines, the embassy balcony needed to be swept before Assange's appearance).

They are, of course, named after her from that play, and the most famous balcony scene of all (which was in fact only a window scene in Shakespeare's text). Tom Scutt, a theatre designer, realised its importance as he conceived the set for a modern imagining of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 , in which Juliet wore a blue dress and Converse boots.

"The balcony scene is a huge, iconic, almost religious moment," says Scutt, 28, from the set of King Lear, which opens next week at London's Almeida Theatre. "There's something about the simple gesture of elevating a person and the frame of a balcony that automatically creates icons out of anyone who has that attention placed on them. It makes a human figure appear larger, like going to the V&A and looking up at a statue."

There have been darker balcony scenes, of course. Ecuador's embassy is unlikely to become as infamous as Iran's, site of the 1980 siege, or the Olympic Village in 1972, when balaclava-clad kidnappers of the Israeli team peered over the balcony during what became known as the Munich Massacre.

Whatever their motives, balconists must be worthy of the elevation they afford themselves. As Scutt says: "There is the potential for it to be quite condescending, if you're rising above the masses in a patronising way."