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The tales behind Johannesburg’s skyscrapers

It’s often said that nobody is truly from Johannesburg, that it has become home to millions of people whose roots are outside the City of Gold’s titanic borders. Most of the city’s inhabitants, to varying degrees, have lived in, worked from, earned in and engaged with the city centre, Johannesburg’s main artery if Cape Town’s is a bowl.

Amid depleted, hijacked and overcrowded buildings, there are timeless architectural beauties anchored in pulsating cultural oases. Up Up: Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises (Fourthwall Books, 2016) is a visual anthology of sorts, a book of love letters and postcards to and about Johannesburg from and by its loyal inhabitants.

A series of black and white photographs of Johannesburg’s skyscrapers, Up Up aims to provide “new insights” into the buildings and “contemporary urban life in South Africa”. It does this through building floor plans, and interviews with and essays by the ordinary and well-known individuals who have lived and worked in these buildings. Those featured include the Carlton Centre and Hotel, Sandglen Towers, Ponte City, the Trust Bank Building, Chrysler House, Ster City, the Diplomat Hotel and the IBM Centre.

The archive photographs of old and new Johannesburg are fascinating, but the soul of the book is in the interviews.

Before inviting readers to visit the famous Anstey’s Building, the 20-floor art deco darling of mid-century Johannesburg, the book starts with a poetic series of descriptive questions detailing the current inhabitants of Joubert Street and Anstey’s. It then sends the reader back in time, to the building’s glory days as a prime shopping and leisure destination in segregated white South Africa.

Gauteng municipal building in Johannesburg city centre. (Mpho Mokgadi)

TV presenter Dali Tambo has fond memories of another iconic high-rise, the Carlton Hotel, where he lived for a year after returning from exile in the early 1990s. He refers to the building as a “hub of activity” that was multiracial, but he doesn’t hang around the Carlton any more because for him it became a “dead zone long ago”.

The hotel, which forms part of the Carlton Centre complex, hosted the who’s who in entertainment and politics but was closed and mothballed in 1997. Transnet later bought the Carlton Centre and transformed it into an office space with a shopping centre below the office tower. The centre has the biggest parking garage in the city.

Situated in Commissioner Street, the 50-storey building was regarded as the tallest office building in Africa from the 1970s. It stands 223m high and was opened officially in 1970. It’s no longer a magnet for big names but it’s certainly part of the heartbeat of modern-day Johannesburg.

The rundown rooftop restaurant of the Lawson Building, on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Jorissen Street, offers a 360-degree view of the inner city. Up Up recounts its history as a popular cocktail lounge owned by businessperson Wilfred Lawson in the 1960s. Lawson used the 21-storey building as a car showroom called Lawson’s Motors, with a petrol station on ground level, but today Wits University owns the building that houses the renowned Wits Art Museum. The building has been transformed into a different kind of showroom, the kind that draws in art lovers, with a café downstairs.

An aerial image from the book of Johannesburg’s high-rise buildings. (MuseuMAfricA, Johannesburg)

It is an example of how old city buildings can be revamped into functional spaces for the public, while maintaining and preserving their distinctive aesthetics. The art museum received a Gauteng Institute for Architecture award for architecture in 2013, an award for buildings that push boundaries and contribute to public spaces.

Edited by Nele Dechmann, Fabian Jaggi, Katrin Murbach and Nicola Ruffo, with photographs by Mpho Mokgadi, the book’s contributors include artists Senzo Shabangu, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt and Stephen Hobbs, writer Robyn Porteous, photographer David Southwood, urbanist Tanya Zack, architect Thireshen Govender, journalist Tabelo Timse, activist Jabu Pereira and others.

The contributors share stories about the buildings and their thoughts on the significance of these skyscrapers. “Some very tall buildings are fascinating markers of the ideas of progress and of a time,” writes Hobbs on Ponte City.

It’s true that each building represents a time in history – a moment and vibe that can’t be recreated because the city landscape and demographics have changed and continue to reshape what it means to be a Jo’burger.

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