Retro holiday in history

Decades spent in Johannesburg couldn’t immunise a resident of this former mining camp to its surprises, its aptitude for turning the whole world upside down now and again. At least this is what those of us who stay here, in spite of the lure of mountains and oceans elsewhere, like to think. A new hotel in a refurbished sports-supplies building in downtown Jo’burg tells the story of just how surprising this city can be.

12 Decades, named to reflect the approximate age of the city, is Johannesburg’s first boutique art hotel. Unlike many other art hotels, which are designed with a view to creating a novel environment, 12 Decades has been conceptualised to reflect the dramatic changes that have taken place from one decade to the next since Johannesburg sprung up out of the Highveld dust in 1886.

On the top floor of Main Street Life, a residential development in an area recently rebranded as the Maboneng District, the hotel boasts 12 artist-designed, self-catering double rooms with panoramic views of the city. Each room is themed according to a particular decade of Johannesburg’s history, the first being 1886 to 1896, and the last 1996 to 2006.

The name of the area, Maboneng, comes from a term used by early migrant workers for the distant city of dreams—Jozi maboneng (“Jozi, place of lights”). Migrant labourers would often find work in the manufacturing warehouses on the eastern cusp of the city, today a mixed-use area that joins Doornfontein to Troyeville. This is where 12 Decades crowns Main Street Life and overlooks Arts on Main. All three are the work of property developer Jonathan Liebmann.

An art hotel in the area has been part of his vision since early on in the development of Arts on Main, which opened to the public after some delays in mid-2009.

Visible commitment
I must confess to having laughed off the idea of an inner-city art hotel when Liebmann first mentioned it in passing, in late 2008. Back then I had to wear a hard hat while interviewing him about Arts on Main, which was still a construction site. It sounded like a pipedream in the face of the largely unoccupied arts complex Liebmann had on his hands. Now Arts on Main is the cultural hub Liebmann always said it would be—and 12 Decades will probably follow suit.

Right from the hotel lobby, the commitment of 12 Decades to Johannesburg’s history is visible. Old history books and annuals on Johannesburg are stacked around a seating and storage unit custom-made by Johannesburg-based design duo, Dokter and Misses.

Liebmann’s hope is that by spending a night there guests will be able to learn something significant about Johannesburg.

“I’m trying to bring back and encourage knowledge of the history of Johannesburg, and so develop a sense of pride in the city,” he says.

The books in the lobby were plucked from the charming disorder of Collectors Treasury, a five-storey book and collectibles shop on Commissioner Street, which is visible from the lobby window. This kind of synchronicity between the interior and the view outside is continued in many of the hotel rooms and grounds the hotel in its urban context.

The first room chronologically (1886 to 1896), designed by Marcus Neustetter and Liebmann, is titled “Vision—Main Street Life” and associates the metaphorical “vision” of a future Johannesburg with the act of looking at distant objects. Neustetter, a resident of Main Street Life, has been working for some time with the motif of telescopic observation and plans to install an astronomical telescope on the roof of Main Street Life.

In their hotel room, white pipes suspended from the ceiling invite guests to peer through them at views of the southeastern part of the city. Just as children make telescopes and binoculars of toilet-roll tubes, vacuum cleaner pipes and rolled-up scraps of paper, we are invited to suspend our disbelief and imagine we are looking into the beyond. The wall above the bed is covered with an enlarged version of a drawing Neustetter made using Google Earth, which outlines the topography of the Vredefort crater alongside that of the Johannesburg CBD. It is speculated that the meteor that created the crater not far from Johannesburg was responsible for the formation of the gold reef. In turn, the reef is the only reason Johannesburg exists as we know it.

Rooms by curator Kim Stern and Prospero and Anna Bailey focus on the centrality of mining to Johannesburg’s early economy. The Baileys, descendents of Randlord Abe Bailey, pay tribute to Chinese indentured labourers who were among the first to work on the mines. A display of historical photographs and news clippings remind us of this history while casting a view towards the eastern suburbs, where many second and third-generation Chinese families live in a tight-knit community.

‘This Is the House that Jack Built’
In Stern’s room, titled “This Is the House that Jack Built (1906 to 1916)”, a far-off view of a mine dump complements an installation of objects spray-painted gold. The interior walls are clad with sheets of pine, as though the entire room were a packaging crate or a printer’s tray. The assortment of objects allude to key moments and figures in Johannesburg’s fledgling economy. Although the “Jack” of the title is Jack Lemkus, the former owner of the building, the ghost of another Jack haunts the room too. Jack Barnato Joel, an early mining magnate and avid horse racer, is memorialised by the gold horseshoe and riding trophy displayed in two separate cubicles of the feature wall that faces the bed.

Ponte Obscura
Some vagueness intervenes in the decades during and immediately preceding the apartheid years. Perhaps this suggests that we are still trying to make sense of that part of our history, particularly in so far as it entrenched the white upper middle class as Johannesburg’s consumers of culture. Rooms designed for this period by Colleen Alborough, actress Lauren Walleta and Bradley Kirshenbaum of Love Jozi give a subtly critical view of culture under apartheid. Kirshenbaum’s “A Part Love A Part Hate (1946 to 1956)” mocks apartheid laws that were written during this period. A double-sided duvet cover takes a jab at the Immorality Act, an act passed in 1949 prohibiting marriage or consensual sex between mixed-race couples. On one side, DF Malan scowls and warns guests “Doen dit nie!” (“Don’t do it!”). In the bathroom Kirshenbaum puts these laws where they belong—in the toilet. The names of several apartheid acts and the dates on which they were passed are glazed in bold black text on the inside of the toilet bowl.
The most memorable room in the hotel, for anyone who visits it in daylight, at least, is Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s “Ponte Obscura”. Waterhouse describes this project as a “sidestep” from the pair’s on-going investigation of life in Ponte City, Johannesburg’s legendary tower of dreams and suicides. Ponte Obscura is set in the decade 1976 to 1986, which coincides with the building of Ponte in 1976. The entire room functions as the body of a camera obscura, which Subotzky and Waterhouse have created by boarding up the window, leaving only a small round opening for the light. The result is that the entire room is filled with the inverted projection of a superb northwards view of Hillbrow and Berea, with Ponte City right in the middle. A couch, upholstered by a man who currently lives in Ponte, faces the interior view, allowing guests to sit and watch the upside-down city in glorious detail.

On my recent morning tour of 12 Decades, Ponte Obscura delivered the sort of magical, unrepeatable moment that to a Johannesburg resident feels like the sort of thing that can only happen here. I was seated on the couch, sniffing the strange Ponte smell that has somehow infiltrated the room (unintentional, swears Waterhouse), and, as per Liebmann’s advice, trying to watch the clouds move. They stayed put. Now and again a taxi would whiz across the ceiling.

It was quaint. Until suddenly a small flock of hadedas (what were they doing in the city?) flapped past Ponte, which was now dangling at about waist-height. They were flying closer to 12 Decades than to Ponte and looked like giant pterodactyls against the skyline, thanks to the strange two-dimensional perspective created by the camera obscura.

There were dinosaurs in Johannesburg! A childish fantasy had for a moment come true, as if to illustrate that anything is possible here—even an inner-city art hotel.

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