/ 10 October 2016

​Art, consumerism and ‘curated’ gentrification meet at Keyes Art Mile

Marble restaurant at Keyes Art Mile.
Marble restaurant at Keyes Art Mile.

The Keyes Art Mile, a new addition to Rosebank’s constant state of renewal, is probably the most telling development in terms of how a rapidly gentrifying Johannesburg sees itself.

The press releases call it “curated neighbourhood living” where “art, design, life, leisure, luxury, fun, friends and work form one seamless experience”. The Trumpet building, which once housed petroleum company Chevron, reopened in August as the first building in the reinvention of this section of Rosebank into a multipurpose precinct.

The building, repurposed by urban planners and architects StudioMAS who have been involved in a number of precincts in Johannesburg and Cape Town, sits between three avenues – Jellicoe, Jan Smuts and Keyes – and is adjacent to the Everard Read and Circa galleries.

A floor was added to the building, accentuating the west-facing views that stretch in the direction of Northcliff and Brixton further south. Development Company Tomorrow Co acquired the building in 2010 and entrepreneur Derek White partnered with former investment banker Anton Taljaard to become the principal shareholders.

StudioMAS’s Pierre Swanepoel says the company’s architectural approach was centred on augmenting the structure, given that the building could not be demolished because of an existing contract the owner of a Caltex branch has with the building’s owners. He adds that the first thing discussed with the owners was “what type of city” they wanted.

“[As a society], we haven’t built a high street in years but we have this wonderful climate. That was the point of departure. If you look at Melrose Arch and the Waterfront in Cape Town, you can walk them but we haven’t built these things in a modern form. And this is stuff happening all over the world now – the emphasis on the ability to walk without spending hours in your car.”

StudioMAS designed the adjacent Circa Gallery with a view of repurposing how patrons interacted with the art on show. The studio is involved in other projects around Johannesburg, including the city’s Metro Centre, a Discovery Building in the city centre, a high-density development above at the Gautrain station in Sandton as well as another multipurpose development near the Gautrain station in Midrand.

In most of these new developments, Swanepoel says, the proximity to a public transport facility such as the Gautrain is key to fostering the idea of “using the city on your feet”. He says allowing patrons to experience art as they moved through the building as opposed to making the gallery a destination space was a key architectural concern.

Since The Trumpet is east facing, Swanepoel says they had to go for light facades and poly carbonate metal foam on metal clouding to allow for easy heating and cooling.

A series of photographs by Mohau Modisakeng, who uses himself to look at the country as a site of conflict, spans the wall overlooking WhatIfTheWorld gallery in the design and gallery section which is interlinked with stores such as KartellFLOS Lighting and Moroso and Cassina.

The floor, dominated by a vast atrium, is somewhat haunted by the presence of Modisakeng’s work, titled Untitled (Frames) I-XXIV. This particular series now owned by White. Ironically, the work, which seeks to critique the very nature and personal cost of consumerism and labour becomes subsumed by the space it seeks to critique, having left the artist’s hands.

Its poignancy now is that it becomes a cog at the intersection between art, exclusion and consumerism, a dilemma the space glosses over.

One floor up is the Mesh Club, a venue founder Jonathon Meyer says “is Africa’s first curated members club for young creatives and established entrepreneurs to meet and work in the day and connect and socialise in the evenings”.

Mesh does this through a variety of platforms including business talks, art films, art collection classes, craft classes and fashion shows. The business model is driven by renting out conference facilities and meeting rooms, as well as a bar, which opens up to the public from 4pm.

Starting from a founding member base of 100 people, including art collectors, artists, property developers, lawyers, gallery owners and app entrepreneurs, entry into the membership club is based on receiving two invitations or two nods from founding members during a club night. A founding manager of the SLOW in the City lounges, Meyer brings the same oak-panelled modern feel to the Mesh.

At the top floor, Marble, co-owned by chef and restaurateur David Higgs, combines futuristic industrial design with a manually modulated wood-fired grill. The cost of an average meal at Marble is about R230, in a setting with prime views of Johannesburg.

The outside section with terrace-facing glass storefronts combines boutique retail (Shelflife), with The Milk Bar coffee shop and burger spot BGR. Estelle van Kerckhoven says the development will also include 84 duplex-style flats, all with the idea of creating a self-contained, “safe” space where people can work, shop, live and walk.

But it is perhaps Meyer who articulates this idea best when he says: “You could quite easily come in here at 7am, have breakfast, have a coffee, have a meeting, have a drink with a client at the bar and go upstairs and have dinner with your mother-in-law. It ticks a lot of boxes for a number of people.”

Salad and coffee at the Ethiopian inspired Milk Bar costs about R60. A 10-person boardroom at the Mesh Club would cost about R5 000 a day to rent out, while after-work iconic cocktails at the Mesh Club would set you back R110 a drink. Factor in a dinner with starters with your in-law at Marble and you could shell out R465 a head.

For shoppers, a sneaker upgrade at Shelflife, perhaps on a different day, will probably set you back at least R1 500 – also the entry level price for a Missibaba accessory , which can be purchased next door.

As Swanepoel put it, the connective thread linking a lot of the developments he mentions is the Gautrain, a mode of transportation that is in line with the idea of “world class African city” as spouted by the city’s bureaucrats.

It sounds inclusive when read out aloud at the city council, but the cost alone pitches this turn of phrase as a way of reorganising society.

Loaded in this rhetoric are both obvious and insidious patterns of filtering and recontextualising public spaces.

In the economic boom of Rosebank, these often come to a head in pointed ways. So while at Marble, one may look out to Nothcliff’s sentinel and omit to look down on the streets of Jan Smuts. There, a pavement informally functions as a taxi rank and grows every day to the size of Rosebank’s gatecrashing labour force. What becomes of the drivers in the heat of summer days and even worse, the queuing passengers in the inevitable afternoon thunderstorms?

What the Keyes Art Mile lays out is that even among the gentrifiers, there are tiers of desired clientele.

A line repeated was that while this may not be for the banker boys club, it is not the for the pop-up hipster crowd of Maboneng either.