Jo’burg: city in transit

Johannesburg Transition: Architecture and Society from 1950 by Clive M Chipkin (STE Publishers)

Clive Chipkin has done it again.

Following his encyclopedic 1993 publication Johannesburg Style: Architecture & Society 1880s-1960, our echt architectural historian has now — just over a decade and a half on — given us an equally fascinating, also punctilious sequel.

That is welcome on at least two counts. First, it is evidence that Chipkin is still at work, so we can expect more from his expansive pen and we can anticipate further carefully vetted photographic illustrations.

Second,the new book brings one’s quest for authortative details on our burgeoning city almost up to date.We know once more where we are and can accordingly look to what might yet come.

As their subtitles indicate, there are correspondences of material in the time periods covered by the twin volumes. This is probably an aid for orienting those who missed the initial study, as well as a means of establishing a recognisable continuity for many old Chipkin hands, among whom I count myself.

The parallels are a start for what, as one penetrates the tome, proves to be an engrossing engagement. Be assured: the text is commendably straightforward.

It is accessible and precise without being pompous or orotund. It is also free of ponderous postmodern phraseology — the ostensible ‘erudition” that has marred much architectural writing in recent years. That phenomenon has decisively removed architectural commentators from their audiences; it has cut them from the profession’s lay public, its very lifeblood.

There is none of that here. This, combined with crisp photography — in black and white as well as frequently and appropriately in colour — makes for a relaxed read. And the scope is similarly appealing.

The author ranges wide to include all manner of buildings; he embraces the gamut of architectural idioms that continue to characterise the restless Johannesburg scene. As was so evident in his earlier volume, a disturbing proportion of our designers remains fixed on transferring, on adapting and/or readapting a train of imported fashions.

Plagiarism continues to rule. With an handful of honourable exceptions, designers persist in abjuring the admittedly complex, the undeniably intricately interrelated task of seeking to forge distinctively local architectures.

In and around the Johannesburg area, these include publicly recognisable Highveld architectures — all admittedly tough, but eminently worthy goals.The book tells of these absences in silent witness. This ecumenical survey comes in 15 substantial parts, each comprising a number of brimming chapters.

There is a preface plus a prelude of maps and such captivating items as the Colonial World, Music Hall, the New Rich and Portraits. These in turn are capped by a useful concluding glossary of terms, a short list of abbreviations, the book’s references and an index. Sandwiched between is the essence of the book.

We are guided chronologically from Post Edwardian Johannesburg through modernity, apartheid, Soweto and the West, the Inner City and the 11 subsections of Chipkin’s Finale.

It is a tour de force and, simultaneously, a grande tour that covers 504 stimulating, jam-packed pages of historical peregrinations.

Beginning in the late 19th century, readers are expeditiously taken into the 20th and nudged into the 21st. That, patently, is way too much for a necessarily summary book review. I shall therefore have to confine my attention by focusing all too cursorily on a few selected references; say, portions of Part 10, the Capitalist City, and Part 14, the Inner City.

The former deals at some length with how Johannesburg’s — the Reef’s — gold-mining capital came to play a leading, a central function in the development and consolidation of the local economy. The text deals with how the city’s successive building booms sprang from and then reinforced this renowned exploitation of indigenous human and mineral wealth.

Accompanying that there are beguiling photographs of gleaming mining houses and allied structures; of priapic glass-sheathed towers that reach imperiously toward our blue, cloud-flecked skies; and, by way of contrast, of massive buildings being imploded. All this is enlivened by engaging anecdotes.

For instance, the information that South Africa’s premier tycoon Harry Oppenheimer’s office bookshelves contained ‘an old book called Socialism next to SA Bloodstock …” And it is illustrated by citations from a variety of perhaps unexpected individuals.

These include the left-wing commentator Martin Legassick’s depiction of the city’s ‘labour coercive economy” and, over the page, ‘Harold Wolpe, a noted Marxist analyst, writing in 1987, observed the ‘intensification of political conflict’ in South Africa.”

The latter part, the Inner City, kicks off with a discussion of Hillbrow. Here, on this occasion quite unsurprisingly, reference is made to Nikolaus Pevsner’s much cited — some might contend much overpraised — 1952 analysis of the area’s ‘extraordinarily consistent … use of the modern idiom”.

From which our author goes on to highlight the café society ambience of the 1950s and the troupes of jazz musicians whose performances permeated the nightlife of the neighbourhood. Here too we are treated to telling photographs: of canyon-like streets between pressing high-rise cliffs and an interior of the gargantuan inner court to the overbearing Ponte tower.

And there is more — much, much more. If you are in the least bit intrigued by the past 60 or so years of our major sub-Saharan city’s social and architectural background, and buildings, grab this readable book.

Prepare to be enthralled. You will doubtless come often to reread, to cherish it, to — as I have done — have it occupy a readily to hand place on your bookshelves.

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