Tales from high-rise dreamland

Johannesburg’s iconic Ponte City building was completed in 1976 — the year of the Soweto uprisings — a symbolic and evocative year for all South Africans.

Designed for the upwardly mobile, white, middle-class population, apartheid urban planning separated this building from the unforgettable events of that year. But the social history of Johannesburg and the history of this building have since intertwined to the point where the state of the building is often given as a metaphor for the state of the city.

The 54-story Ponte City dominates the Johannesburg skyline with its huge blinking advertising crown that can be seen from Soweto in the south to Sandton in the north. Residents of the building love the fact that they can simply direct visitors to the “Vodacom Building”, with reference to the ubiquitous advertising tenants. When it was built, the surrounding flatlands of Berea, Hillbrow and Yeoville were exclusively white and home to young couples, students and Jewish grandmothers. But as the city changed in anticipation and response to the arrival of democracy in 1994, many of these residents joined the exodus towards the supposed safety of the northern suburbs. The city centre and its surrounding flatlands quickly became associated with crime, urban decay and, most of all, the influx of foreign nationals from neighboring African countries.

Ponte’s reality and its many fictions have always integrated seamlessly into a cloud of myths and projections that reveal as much about the psyche of Johannesburg as they do about the building itself.

Tales of brazen crack and prostitution rings being run from its car parks, four storeys of trash accumulating in its open core, snakes, ghosts and frequent suicides, have all added to the mythical status of the building. Some of these stories are true, as is the fact that for quite some time most of the residents were illegal immigrants. And yet, one is left with the feeling that even the building’s notoriety is somewhat exaggerated — that its decline is just as fictionalised as its initial utopian intentions.

A major attempt to refurbish and revitalise Ponte has recently failed spectacularly, after developers had bought the building and promised to spend R300-million on their vision for its future. Their aim was to restore its original desirability by targeting a new group of aspirant middle-class residents.

This time, marketing for the redeveloped building was directed at young, upwardly mobile black professionals, business people from the African continent, and all those who seek a chic, New York style of inner-city living. In the words of the developers: “In every major city in the world, there is a building where most can only dream to live. These buildings are desirable because they are unique, luxurious, iconic. They require neither introduction nor explanation. The address says it all.”

The developers emptied half the building and stripped the apartments of everything, throwing their rubble into the building’s central core. They started to reappoint the apartments to a variety of exotic décor themes, but their financing required sales upfront and these failed to materialise in sufficient numbers.

I was first taken to Ponte in early 2008 by a friend who thought I might be interested to work there. I wasn’t at first — put off by my feeling that Ponte was a cliché and that almost every photographer I knew had taken the same shot looking up its core. But I had recently met Patrick Waterhouse on a residency in Italy, and our discussions about the building reignited my interest. We conceptualised a project that would focus as much on the mythical presence of the building as on its physical space. This project is still in progress, and we suspect it will take a few more years of work to complete.

When we started our work there, the building was a shell, its bottom half completely empty and the top half sparsely populated. Former residents moved out in a hurry to make way for the developers, often leaving behind personal possessions and documents. Many of their apartments were then burgled and trashed and months later, when the development had failed, we entered room after room where the floors were covered in piles of broken possessions, torn photographs and scattered paperwork.

We would walk the corridors of whole floors of empty flats and then suddenly hear children shouting out, the fizz and smell of frying fish, and then briefly voices and water as we passed the bathroom and kitchen windows that face the passageways.

These spectres disappeared as quickly as they had come, returning us to our cyclical wonderings. We started to request portraits of the remaining residents in the lifts; making acquaintances through the ensuing banter and promises to bring back copies. When we returned with the photographs to people’s apartments, doors soon opened to all kinds of living arrangements — whole families in bachelor flats, empty carpeted flats with nothing but a mattress and a giant TV console and penthouses divided up by sheets and appliances into living spaces for four or five families.

Now the old owners, who have repossessed the building, have started trying to clean it up, and have invited many of the old residents back into the apartments to make up their rental shortfall. Another cycle in the building’s narrative begins before the last illusions of a grand future could be erased. The posters and graphics advertising “New Ponte” still hang in the hallway, passed daily by many residents who still think this is what their building will become.

We started to work systematically, calling at each apartment to request a picture of every window and every door — images we will eventually stitch into giant internal and external panoramas. As we proceeded with this task, we noticed that almost everybody was watching their TV screens, seemingly ignoring the spectacular views that attracted us to their windows. So we joined them and would end up spending hours watching old Rambo movies, Congolese sitcoms and Nollywood dramas.

Thus, all the stories from Ponte’s past manifested before us — the druglords and gangsters, the shootouts and the prostitutes, the ghosts and the voodoo magic. But not in the building itself, where young people and families went about their seemingly calm lives, but on the hundreds of television screens that were stacked above each other, flat by flat and floor by floor, in an installation of drama and fiction.

Ponte has always been a place of myth, allusion and aspiration. This is what we seek to evoke. Perhaps this task is best left to the images we have found there — both in the abandoned flats and in the marketing material and advertising we have collected between 1976 and 2008.

When these documents are seen next to the dystopian appearance of the building and its surroundings, one begins to project a sense of this city in this time. It is a place of both dust and dreams that befits the land on which it sits — land that originally attracted millions of migrants with the promise of the gold that it carries.

People are still drawn here from all over the continent in search of better prospects for themselves and their families. But the gold, still mined here, inevitably fulfills the dreams of so few. All around them, those who service this passion are scattered into a modern metropolis — pinning their dreams to the flashing signs that crest the city and some of its buildings.

Michael Subotzky’s Two Projects is open at the Goodman Gallery, Parkwood, until November 21. It will also be showing at the Goodman Gallery Project at Arts on Main. There is an offical artist reception at 10am on Saturday November 7, at Arts on Main

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