Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and receive a 40% discount on our annual rate..

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

Seven years’ radio silence for taxpayer-funded Rhythm FM

Almost R50-million of taxpayers’ money has been invested but the station is yet to broadcast a single show

Q&A Sessions: Zanele Mbuyisa — For the love of people-centred...

She’s worked on one of the biggest class-action cases in South Africa and she’s taken on Uber: Zanele Mbuyisa speaks to Athandiwe Saba about advocating for the underrepresented, getting ‘old’ and transformation in the law fraternity

More top stories

New sex abuse claims against aid workers exposed in DRC

Investigation finds extensive abuse of power by men allegedly working at organisations such as the World Health Organisation

Platinum records for South African mines

The miners are in a comfortable position as the world creeps towards a lower-carbon future

Denel money woes clip air force’s wings

A senior officer says the shortage of spares and and ability to service aircraft and vehicles has a negative effect on the SANDF’s operational ability

State fails at-risk children as R55m orphanage stands empty

Boikagong Centre in Mahikeng has been closed for almost two years because it did not meet safety requirements. The discarded children say they want a safe place to learn, but instead endure rape and other violence
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×