No one can be exactly sure when the first balustrades were built. But we can guess that as soon as buildings of more than one storey were built, balustrades were probably not far behind, which puts the timeline into thousands of years.
The original purpose of a balustrade, of course, is to act as a safety barrier on an elevated platform. However, although they may have been invented out of practical necessity, balustrades have evolved over the centuries as important design features in their own right.
A Brief History of Balustrades
The style of different balustrade systems used down the ages has often been determined by the materials in fashion at the time. We know, for example, that the Ancient Greeks and Romans were enthusiastic stone masons. Balconies were added to the facades of important buildings with ornate carved stone balustrades, acting as status symbols and signs of wealth. Similarly, rich citizens would add stone columns to staircases in the grand classical style.
1500 years later in Renaissance Europe, tastes had moved towards wooden balustrades, ranging from simple turned spindles to elaborately carved boards and railings. Wood has remained a highly popular material for balustrades ever since thanks to the relative ease with which it can be worked into decorative designs.
By the Victorian era, wrought iron had become a widely used material, especially for external balustrades. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, casting iron railings and spindles became cheap and quick, plus iron had the advantage of being much more durable than wood for use outdoors.
In the latter part of the 20th century, another material entered the balustrade lineage. Prompted by efficient modern manufacturing techniques and the development of toughened versions, glass has become a hugely popular option for balustrades both in commercial premises and in the home.
As with all types, the primary practical purpose of a glass balustrade is to provide a safety barrier around a raised open area. In commercial properties, the open side of staircases must be enclosed under UK law. With that safety requirement in mind, it was only with the invention of toughened laminate glass, produced by inserting a layer of plastic between two panes, that it became a practical option as a material for balustrades.
Like other materials before it, glass balustrades have now come to represent a particular age and architectural style. The combination of glass fillings and stainless steel railings familiar in so many public and commercial buildings has become iconic. Clean, sharp and bright, glass balustrades define modern design the same way stone did the classical civilisations and wood did in post Renaissance Europe.
Light plays a crucial role in the appeal and popularity of glass balustrades. The only transparent material commonly used in balustrade systems, it can be fitted in complete panels without obstructing views or casting shadows from spindles. It is perfect for maximising light in indoor and outdoor spaces, making spaces appear bigger and brighter with unrestricted lines of sight.