Arts and Culture

Rooftops open new horizons in the city

Percy Zvomuya

From a 'beach' to a reggae club, from the lap of luxury to a basketball court -- it's all happening on the top floors of of Jo'burg buildings.

The world at your feet: Randlords sits atop the Southpoint Towers building in Braamfontein.(Madelene Cronje)

Rooftop bars have become the latest trendy hangout spots for the young and hip in Johannesburg. And a handful of property developers, who are working to ­gentrify inner-city areas such as Braamfontein and the Maboneng precinct, are selling the idea of the rooftop as the ideal place to unwind with a sundowner or to party until dawn.

In the city, one roof is as different as the next. They range from a rooftop themed as a beach to another that offers the ultimate in stylish luxury and one that will soon have a basketball court. In the years ahead, Jo’burg is bound to see many more rooftop venues open up as property developers, architects and designers exploit the potential of these open spaces to redefine the city experience.

Here are the top venues:  

The Beach
If the thousands of people who visit Braamfontein every Saturday were asked to choose a mayor, it’s possible they would choose Adam Levy. He is the force behind 70 Juta Street, the Neighbourgoods Market, the revamped Alexander Theatre, the residential block at 155 Smit Street and now the Beach, which is a rooftop bar themed as a beach, complete with blinding-white sand, umbrellas and a faux tropical ambience.

When I went to interview Levy in situ, it was hot and the white sand seemed to amplify the temperature. “The plan is for the venue to be a place for an afternoon sundowner,” Levy said. Braamfontein is one of those places where the demographics are in flux: if you go on a Saturday morning, the income levels of those you bump into are higher than the hordes of students and working-class people who own Braamfontein’s streets during the week. Levy wants to change this: “We want to have activity during the week. Hopefully, it will be open every day from February. So that instead of sitting in traffic you can come here, chill and have a drink.”

Why a beach-themed rooftop bar, I asked. “I have always wanted to have a beach in my city,” Levy replied. People who have been to “the beach in the sky” have asked the inevitable question: “When are you bringing the sea to Jo’burg?”

Levy had the idea of a beach bar after listening to a radio show. A caller phoned in and on being asked where he was calling from, replied: “From the beach”. So he decided to build one on the top of a building. Far from the venue being a finished project, Levy spoke about it as “a conceptual idea — we’ll see how people like it”.

The developer said: “You normally start from the ground and then go upwards — but why not start from the roof, going downwards?” 
68 Juta Street, Braamfontein

The Living Room
A conversation with Hayleigh Evans reveals that the fetish of the rooftop isn’t just in the headspin induced by breathing air that circulates in the lower stratosphere; there is something else at play: the logic of capital.

Every bit of space must be put to use, including spaces that originally wouldn’t have been expected to coin money. Evans, who works as the brand manager for Propertuity — the company behind the developments at the Maboneng precinct — spoke about “optimising” the use of the space.

She took me to the roof of the 12 Decades Hotel, previously a party venue, but now sealed off from the general public. “We are busy doing an upgrade,” she said about the plans to build roof decks for the residents and guests. “It’s going to be a little bit smaller and little bit more exclusive.”

Although it boasts a modest gym, the rooftop looked ragged and desolate, quite different from its previous life as a venue that hosted scores of partying people on weekends.

I swivelled my head this way and that as she told me about her company’s plans for several properties in the area, including a basketball court on one roof. Across the road, construction on the rooftop of Revolution House (yet another residential property) was proceeding at a frenetic pace.

The Living Room, so named because of its lush vegetation, is used as a party venue every Sunday. Since it opened a few months ago, DJs and live bands have played there for scores of people. Although of modest height (not more than six storeys), it offers good views of the east of the city.
20 Kruger St, the Main Change, Maboneng

Randlords
It’s no hyperbole to say Randlords offers truly spectacular 360° views of the city. One imagines that the original Randlords would have loved the venue, taking in the majestic panoramas of the city and the extent of their reach and new areas to conquer.

Perched as it is on the top floor, the 22nd, of Southpoint Towers, you can see every facet of the city. To the south, Soccer City is visible and the mine dumps shimmer; to the north, Sandton City glitters.

Just below, facing the central business district, Mandela Bridge doesn’t look as grand. On clear days, apparently, you can even see the Magaliesberg mountains.

The rooftop bar and restaurant (winner of best venue in the Best of Johannesburg Awards) is not normally open to the general public. Randlords, owned by Braamfontein property barons Southpoint, is used mainly for private events, corporate events and weddings (it costs R35 000 to hire the venue).

Margeaux Swartz, who heads the company’s marketing division, said the venue hosts an average of eight to 10 events a month, but in the peak season — the one we are in now — Randlords is “almost fully booked”.

The roof is big enough to host up to 450 people for a cocktail party or 120 people for a sit-down dinner.
41 De Korte Street, Braamfontein. Website: randlords.co.za

The Neighbourgoods Market
Sardines in a can — perhaps that cliché best describes the thousands of people who throng this Braamfontein market on Saturdays where designer food and drinks, and vintage clothes, are hawked on one floor while the rooftop above it has a bar.

Originally a parking garage, the space is decked out with wooden tables every Saturday and roughly  3 000 visitors — black, brown and white — pass through to drink and eat, and look cool and beautiful.

I asked Itumeleng Mamabolo, a clinical psychologist whom I frequently meet when I visit the venue, why he finds the Neighbourgoods Market fascinating. He said that, after graduating from Wits University and leaving the campus, the market provided him with the opportunity to return to Braamfontein, his old neighbourhood.

But not everyone who lives in the area is aware of this new development in the neighbourhood. A few weeks ago, I met an old acquaintance who works as a handyman. He has lived in Braamfontein since 2005 in a building on Biccard Street, the less fashionable part of Braamfontein. He was surprised to learn that the venue is a trendy spot.

“I didn’t know about it,” he confessed. “Is it expensive?”

“Yes,” I replied, thinking of the wines and beers that cost R35 a glass. “Bring about R300 for a decent afternoon with your wife.”
Corner of De Beer and Juta streets, Braamfontein. Website: neighbourgoodsmarket.co.za

House of Tandoor
To get into the House of Tandoor —situated at the top of a two-storey building in Rockey Street in Yeoville — you walk through a wanly lit, narrow corridor. At the end of the corridor, sitting in the semi-darkness was a heavily dreadlocked Eric Mpobola, collecting the night’s cover charge of R30.

Mpobola is the owner of the venue, one that can convincingly lay claim to being the spiritual home of reggae and dancehall music in Johannesburg. “This is not just the best rooftop in Johannesburg or Africa; it is the best in the world,” Mpobola said.

On its walls there is a mural: Madiba is placed on a continuum along with fellow black revolutionaries Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie; South African icons Steve Biko and Chris Hani; and  Jamaican musicians Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.

One end of the building has a pulpit (at times the reggae sessions have the intensity and texture of church trance sessions), and a variety of DJs take turns to entertain the crowd. I thought I saw a few Ethiopians, not a small number of Rastas and a slim, tall patron, with dexterous dance steps, whose face reminded me of dancehall maestro DJ Busy Signal.
28 Rockey Street, Yeoville

Lister Building
Open since 2005, it’s fair to say the folks behind the wind-pounded Lister Medical Building on Bree Street are the vanguard behind the concept of the rooftop venue.

Going by the moniker Private Practice, it takes its therapeutic theme from the doctors and other medical professionals who occupy the offices below.

At 19 storeys, it offers a dizzying view of the city right from its pelvis. Although it can be used as a general events space, it is, arguably, the most cultural of the rooftop perches.

That’s not to say people are not getting wasted; but the idea seems to be: get drunk, but do it while you soak in some culture.

Over the years the venue has hosted musicians (BLK JKS), visual artists (Mocke J van Veuren) and DJs (Kenzhero).

Alastair McLachlan, who runs the venue, is aware that others have run away with the rooftop concept.

“There was nothing like it. Our focus was to advertise Jo’burg, to get people back to the city. But we lost our momentum. We need to change focus and connect more with the people who already live in the city,” he said.
195 Jeppe Street, Johannesburg. Website: intermission.co.za


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