Friday, April 12, 2013

Buldings Don’t Make a City – People Do.


                    I am known for being a proponent of Downtown Johannesburg, certainly Johannesburg Central is far more sustainable, more authentic, offers more opportunity and greater diversity, and is a better place to see return on your property investment than a small, decentralized, micro office node like Sandton, but I’m not going to discuss those statements in depth here.

Rather I’d like to talk about cities, about Johannesburg, about architecture, aesthetic, connectivity, experience, delight, where we as South African architects are excelling, and where we have lost the plot completely.

So what makes a city?
Is a city simply about built density – certainly a node like Sandton would seem to be approaching a city type density – but is density alone what defines a city?

“Architecture in Johannesburg has reached a most anomalous stage; enormous building activity has inevitably led to an almost total neglect of critical standards. Buildings are frequently described in the press, to which no architects name can be attached, and to which certainly no respecting one would put his name”.  The South African Architectural Record, June 1937

Looking at poor examples of architecture I could talk about how over 70 mature trees, with a history dating back almost 100 years to the Rosebank Junior School, were felled to create the new Standard Bank office block in Rosebank.
More interesting now, is the way that this building addresses the urban environment – or the way that it doesn’t address the urban environment.
Rosebank is a popular business node, famous as a walkable district; human scale buildings highly permeable to the street and public space create a welcoming and pleasant pedestrian experience. Does this building take any cognizance of this environment? A monolithic glass block, cut off from the street by on grade parking, with left over, unusable space as an urban green pocket?

Part of the problem is our professions current obsession with “green building”.
I’m not venturing that there is anything wrong with any endeavor to conserve our planets finite resources, or to create more sustainable buildings and communities, but many architects have become so obsessed with checking the green boxes, that we have lost site of the spirit of Architecture. The green obsession is reducing architecture from the spiritual of an art form, to the dull science of an accounting audit, – box checking, number crunching. The appeal is that green is easy to tabulate, to sell commercially, while good architecture or design is about space, experience, aesthetic, spirit - its difficult to quantify or put a commercial value on these aspects present in exemplary architecture.

In a recent City Chat column, Neil Fraser talks about a lack of sense of place in architecture - “As I ascend 15 floors from car-park to plush offices in yet another aluminium box, I think of all the other aluminium boxes we now use for departure and arrivals.”

The global bland eliminates our sense of place. Arrivals, whether by plane, train or lift should create a sense of expectancy, a prologue to the story that will unfold.  Departures are the epilogue -“a last glimpse, an invitation to return.  This is as valid for the once in a lifetime trip as it is for the daily commute.

The architects of New York's Grand Central Station captured the excitement & larger than life qualities of the city. The original Gordon Leith Park station in Johannesburg had Pierneef paintings of scenes from around South Africa decorating the main concourse, giving the place a sense of centrality - all railroads lead from & to the City of Gold.

Today, a sense of wonder is a luxury, as our places of transition have become cages for captive consumers filled with persuasions to buy. Economic necessities do inhibit individualistic structures, but in our race to the bottom-line, we leave in our wake a numbness of being anywhere & nowhere.

The Gautrain is a case in point – bland generic stations unidentifiable from each other.  This represents a huge missed opportunity – instead of a gateway to new travel experiences, emerging from the ground to reveal unexplored and exciting new urban possibilities, we have to make do with awkward stations, sandwiched between underdesigned buildings and overly busy, pedestrian impossible streets - no connection to any type of urban experience. The human element is completely absent from these sterile, grey, drab spaces, no coffee and newspaper kiosks, hawkers are Verboten – Your Gautrain gold card opens the turnstile into an inhospitable, bland, over regulated un reality. 

The Park Station Gautrain terminal is about as good as it gets, with some sense of urban public space on arrival. The location is less fortunate – not in Braamfontein, and not Downtown – an awkward stepchild left to fend for itself in no mans land. 

Not only is this “global bland” a symptom of function over aesthetic but also of the removal of human interaction and thought from the design process. The time taken to draft an elevation, to consider its proportion, the deliberate thought and action of erasing and redrawing a pencil line on paper- this gives a design life.
The human element of thought and spirit in design that the advent of Autocad began to erode a generation ago has now been completely obliterated by the global adoption of Revit. A standard generic robotic design tool, and we wonder why one building looks exactly like the next, one surface feels the same as another, the aspect of humanity, discovery, surprise, delight, mistake, banished from the design process.

How do we combat the generic, the global bland?
I’m not in a position to answer that, but certainly it is a critical challenge facing architects today, and one worth some thought.

The preamble to the National Development Plan, adopted by government to chart South Africas way forward to 2030 states,
As South Africans we know our history, and that of other people.
We have learned a great deal from our complex past;
Adding continually to our experience of being African.

So what can we learn from our architectural history in Johannesburg?
Modern movement buildings make for particularly interesting case studies, considering the current trends towards, mass machine production. There is growing appreciation for Modern Movement architecture within the profession, and lay people also.
Since I am a councilor on PHRAG I had to slip an old building in here.

Hot Point House 1936 (Hanson Tomkin Finklestein)
This is a building that in its time bucked the trend for crass commercially driven shit architecture. It stretched the boundaries of planning, construction and design. The entire street front of the building is cantilevered, allowing uninterrupted glazing along the pavement, creating a visually permeable edge between Hotpoint and the city. The façade is a case study in composition – architects in the 30s still had a classical training in Palladian proportioning, the golden section, renaissance architecture – the fact that the building is perfectly proportioned is not a mistake, there is an underlying understanding of architectural composition here – not aesthetic for aesthetics sake.
Ribbon windows pick up the beautiful horizontal of the Bree Street canyon, offset by light and elegant projecting balcony stacks, faced in black glass to reflect activity in the street below. Hotpoint represented a change in architectural attitude, a rejection of second best, an exploration of buildings, and their relationship to the street and to the city.

The 1936 review of the building goes on to praise the stripped down aesthetic, the architects rejection of the tendency to “imagine what feature can best be elongated, hideously, or perched uncomfortably as a crowning feature on some unfortunate structure.

If (many) architects are not engaging at the forefront of creating integrated cities, and reinvigorating civic urban space, who else will?

There are some exemplary South Africans pushing the boundaries of city exploration and pioneering new public urban interaction.

Never one to play it safe, South African fashion designer David Tlale, created a massive stir -closing Nelson Mandela Bridge for his midnight fashion week show – bringing high fashion and the Joburg A list back to the streets of the city, and in the process claiming his title as prince of South African couture. 

Always the most coveted fashion week invite, this year, Tlale previewed his new collection on the steps of City Hall. Once the center of Johannesburg’s public life, Government Square had all but been forgotten. Tlale could have plugged into what others had already pioneered, hosting a “downtown” show in the relative safety of Maboneng or Braamfontein, but instead he chose a spectacular, and completely unique location. Guests were whisked from the fashion week tents in Newtown to the Foot of the Rissik street Fountains. The glowing white Barbican, the warm sandstone of City Hall, and the ruins of the ZAR Styz Weirda Rissik Street Post office, created the perfect backdrop for Tlales impeccable, vintage inspired, quintessentially African take on contemporary couture.

 More important though, the event re activated disused civic space, bringing activity and life into the heart of the city center – and bringing it there at night!  I’d call David Tlale an inspirational urban African civic pioneer!

This could only be done in the city – Sandton has no Civic Heart (please don’t tell me Nelson Mandela square) – this activation of civic space can only happen in an authentic downtown environment, and as architects and creative professionals, this is what we should be pioneering.

We have all heard MANY excuses for buildings that turn their backs on civic context, creating dislocated islands, instead of pioneering connected, sustainable urban neighborhoods. As South Africans, crime is an excuse offered for all eventualities. Other popular choices with architects ;- the budget was too tight, the client wanted a parking lot instead of an entrance lobby, the urban environment was too rough, or too difficult to deal with , nobody walks anyway.

A building that flies in the face of all these excuses is Nina Coen and Fiona Garsons Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein.

This is a building which could easily have become a bunker, and certainly every excuse tendered for the creation of an island building is applicable to Wits Art Museum.
Wits is a client obsessed with safety and extremely suspicious of creating any type of connection to the city (any pedestrian who has tried to access the campus from Braamfontein without the automatic credibility lent by driving motorcar will attest to this)

The building stands at the South East Edge of the campus, a perfect position to act as a connector between the university and Braamfontein, and also a strategic gateway to the inner city.
Originally a motorcar dealership, the space had become degraded through years of neglect and disuse. Infested with taxi drivers, illegal informal traders and general urban decay wits erected a pre-fab wall topped with barbed wire – further cutting the building off from the city.

The design proposal was a drastic one – opening up the original motor court corner with sliding glazed walls, blurring the distinction between the interior and exterior spaces, and between the building and the city around it.
Once a sinkhole, the art museum has become a beautiful icon at the edge of Braamfontien, and has opened Wits up to this vibrant regenerated district. At night the building becomes a glowing beacon at the gateway to downtown.

Further, the architect’s sensitive reuse of the building has created a seamless integration between an old building and its new function. Original materials like terrazzo, glazed external tiles and marble were retained, cleaned and incorporated into the new Wits Art Museum,  creating a beautifully crafted piece of civic architecture, the ultimate antidote to the contemporary condition of generic, global bland

Main Street Mall -Another very successful connected un-gated urban space

It is important to remember that people cannot be forced to use streets, if they have no reason to be there. Main Street is a strategic artery - linking Gandhi Square Transport Terminus in the center of the city to the banks, mining houses, courts and the Newtown Cultural area. Important to the continued sustainability of the Street are Anglo American, forming an anchor on the West end of Main, and Nedbank’s 100 Main office, forming the East Anchor.  Diverse functions along the street ensure pedestrian activity and movement, creating a sustainable node, made safe through use and activity, rather than through access controlled booms, razor wire and electric fencing.

Streets should be social spaces, community nodes, explosions of colour, energy and daily interaction

Cities are not solely created through built density, but rather through the creation of sustainable, safe public space.  The great American urbanist Jane Jacobs noted, “Think of a city and what comes to mind - Its streets!” A city is not simply a collection of buildings created in a void, with streets as a left over space between. The city is a living organism and streets, as its main public spaces, are the arteries that sustain the city’s life.
The rebirth of the city has to start on the street! When people say that a city is dangerous – perceived or real - they mean that they don’t feel safe on their own pavement; they don’t feel safe on heir own street.

To the people who still live in Fourways, don’t need to see Italy because they have Montecasiono, think that Sandton is a City, that the world ends just South of Hyde Park and that there is no activity or investment in authentic urban environments, I leave you this last thought :-

Critical Mass / 70 Juta / Maboneng, Play Braamfontein, Propertuity, Wits Art Museum, ANC Luthuli House, ABSA, South Point, The Rand Club, Standard Bank (excluding the Rosebank aborton), Jonathan Liebmen, Jo Buitendach, Anglo American, Katlego at Cramers Coffee, Adam Leevie,  Urban Ocean, Nedbank – especially 100 Main, FNB, Gerald Garner, Gauteng Provincial Government, Mutual & Federal, The Ansteys Building, The Star Newspaper, Zurich Insurance, BHP Billiton, Chamber of Mines, David Tlale, Transnet, The South African Receiver of Revenue, The suburban kids who think that they invented cool by living in Ponte, Mercedes Benz South African Fashion Week,  Gauteng Institute for Architecture – but only when your roller shutters are up.

You pioneer civic reactivation, you create sustainable inclusive urban communities, you are South African, you buck the trend, you don’t play it safe, all roads lead to the city of gold, and you make Johannesburg great!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Directory of Inner CIty Cool

Astor Mansions 1932
In 1932, Astor Mansions transported the American Skyscraper to downtown Johannesburg – dwarfing the rest of the city at a massive11 stories! Designed by the architects Obel and Obel, the buildings distinctive roof spires mimic the Stainless steel pinnacles atop New York’s Chrysler Building. Even the name “Astor Mansions” emblazoned across the 11th floor, and visible across the entire city in the 30’s, aspired to the glamour of the Big Apple’s Waldorf Astoria, and to the appeal of all things American. Tucked away on the corner of Joubert and Von Brandis Streets, Astor Mansions remains one of Johannesburg’s finest Art Deco survivors, a reminder of an elegantly optimistic 1930’s city.

Chrysler House 1936
Chrysler House stands at the Southern edge of the city, a deserted monument to Johannesburg’s old Motortown District. Designed by the architects Nurcombe and Summerly, the Building creates a distinctive and typically Art Deco silhouette against the city skyline, the upper floors stepping back on each other-  like a giant Egyptian Pyramid. Bands of Bauhaus style ribbon windows wrap the building’s upper office levels. Most distinctive though is the West Elevation, its glazed window wall towering twenty six meters above Eloff Street! Vertical stainless steel fins once adorned the structure, heightening its elegant New Yorkesque skyscraper quality. The Chryslers modern exterior was echoed in the motor showrooms, packed with the latest American automobiles and finished in acres of glass, marble and chrome. When completed in 1936 the building housed the fastest motorcar lifts in the British Empire, hoisting cars on to showroom floors for seven levels and securing the Chrysler its status as a monument to Johannesburg’s modern age!
 The Ansteys Building 1936
Designed by the architects Emley and Williamson for Norman Anstey and Company Department store, Ansteys was the tallest building in Africa when completed in 1936. The ziggurat shaped skyscraper remains one of Johannesburg’s most recognized Art Deco buildings, situated in the heart of the old downtown retail district. To 1930’s Johannesburgers Ansteys must have seemed impossibly tall - its sky scraping form soaring above the bustling city side walks. The Ansteys structure peels back as it shoots skywards, terminating in a mast designed for docking airships! Ansteys has a rich social history. The Chairman of the JSE kept a penthouse in the building, as did the Playwright and anti-apartheid activist Cecil Williams, who was arrested together with Nelson Mandela on the 5th of August 1962. Ansteys is recognized as the downtown address of choice for off beat city artists and urban pioneers, people keen to secure their own stake in Johannesburg’s rebirth.

His Majesties 1945
Commissioned by the property mogul I. W. Schlesinger, His Majesties secured the reputation of Commissioner Street as the theater district of Johannesburg. His Majesties was Johannesburg’s very own Rockefeller Center, complete with illuminated signage and giant crowns above its twin 18 story turrets. Designed by J. C Cook and Cowen in 1937, the building was finally completed in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. Accommodating the famed His Majesties Theater at street level, the superblock structure also contained 18 floors of offices - home to the Joannesburg Bar for many years. Even Joe Slovoe had an office in the building. Schlesinger based his 500m2 office on the penthouse floor, complete with Rhodesian teak paneled boardrooms, a timber spiral staircase, vaulted ceilings, and uninterrupted views across the city! 

Shakespeare House 1936
Designed in 1936 by the architects J C Cook and Cowen, Shakespeare House is another exemplary Johannesburg Deco Building. Although worse for wear, Shakespeare House compliments the neighboring “His Majesties Building” - vertical window bands accentuating the building’s height, culminating in an elegantly articulated roofscape, complete with Art Deco flag masts. Above the entrance to the building remains the unusual and beautifully articulated name “Shakespeare House”
Innes Chambers 1961
By the mid 1950s His Majesties Building had become too small to accomodate the Johannesburg Bar. In 1961 Sidney Abromowitch was appointed to design Innes Chambers as a new home for The Bar. Conveniently situated opposite The High Court on Pritchard Street, some members of The Bar were concerned that the new building was too far away from the legal professions other favorite haunt – The Rand Club. The architect conceived the form of the building as a backdrop to the court building, and care was taken to produce a relatively low building to avoid dominating the Supreme Court. The result was a beautiful Brazilian inspired modernist building. Clad in opalescent white mosaics which shimmer in the Johannesburg Sunlight, the unusual patterned façade screen is reminiscent of a beautiful Shweshwe fabric motif. Innes Chambers is earmarked for refurbishment as A grade legal offices, with a project start slated for later in 2012.

Ponte City 1976
When completed in 1976 no1 Lily Avenue Berea -‘Ponte City’, was arguably the most coveted residential address on the African Continent. A victim of 90’s capital flight to the suburbs, the iconic cylindrical structure of Ponte City became a monument to decay, urban legend, fear, and the unknown. Today Ponte still captures Johannesburg’s imagination, as much a part of the contemporary collective conscious, as when it was built in the mid ‘70s! While the average suburbanite will probably never visit Berea, or set foot in a building like Ponte, 36 years later the giant cylindrical tower remains synonymous with Johannesburg, its elegant form imprinted on every iconic Johannesburg skyline. The Building is currently undergoing a complete transformation - already attracting a diverse demographic of new residents, from photographers and journalists, to foreign nationals seeking their fortune in the city of gold. Ponte has transcended the spirit of 70’s South Africa – adapting to a completely new and different context, a symbol of contemporary cosmopolitan Johannesburg!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Inspirational Urban Space: Main Street Mall, Marshalltown Johannesburg

Contemporary South African architects and planners seem obsessed with over regulated ready made plastic spaces. We create instant cities in the suburbs – fabricating high streets, linking no place to no destination. This trend has spurned developments like Melrose Arch, which stretch from access control boom to electric perimeter fence. There would seem to be reason for this obsession. One has only to look at the urban disaster along Bree or Joubert Street in the CBD. Suddenly over regulation seems a sensible solution for “public space” in Johannesburg. Downtown, Bree and Joubert Street and many others, portray a city on the brink of collapse, strangling itself through lack of management, regulation or design. Sidewalks choked with informal traders and litter, push pedestrians into the street and rob the city of vital public space.

Cities are not solely created through built density, but rather through the creation of sustainable, safe public space.  The great American urbanist Jane Jacobs noted, “Think of a city and what comes to mind - Its streets!” A city is not simply a collection of buildings created in a void, with streets as a left over space between. The city is a living organism and streets, as its main public spaces, are the arteries that sustain the citie’s life.
The rebirth of the city has to start on the street! When people say that a city is dangerous – perceived or real - they mean that they don’t feel safe on their own pavement; they don’t feel safe on heir own street.

Downtown, streets like the redeveloped Main Street Mall, have brought life back to the city. Streets in the CBD are not sterile and faux. Unlike Sandton, where roads were designed only for cars, downtown streets are social spaces, community nodes, and explosions of colour, energy and daily interaction. Rather than trying to control and regulate the urban environment with security boom gates and razor wire, arteries like Main Street have become safe through encouraging activity.

The upgrade of Main Street in 2005, reduced motor traffic to a single lane, creating wide New York style pavements. The widened pavements provide space for pedestrians, coffee shops and urban greenery. Main Street Mall has spurned the re emergence of downtown café culture. Office workers desk bound for decades, once too afraid to explore the city beyond their access controlled office blocks, have ventured back on to the street. Secretaries on smoke breaks, coffee shops, convenience stores, shoppers and scores of pedestrians, have created a city node alive with activity and interaction. Along Main Street the city becomes an urban interactive theatre!

It is important to remember that people cannot be forced to use streets, if they have no reason to be there. Main Street is a strategic artery - linking Gandhi Square Transport Terminus in the center of the city to the banks, mining houses, courts and the Newtown Cultural area. These diverse functions along the street ensure pedestrian activity and movement, creating a sustainable node, made safe through use and activity, rather than through access controlled booms, razor wire and electric fencing.

Main Street Mall is a case study in the development of regenerated, sustainable South African cities. The rebirth of urban areas starts on the street!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Future Cities

Historic cities, contemporary cities, and cities of the future are about more than just built density. Buildings downtown simply set the stage for action, interaction and the everyday life that creates a city.

Just as it is important to plan a city, it is important to remember that the life can also be planned out of a city. The idea of regulation of cities and public spaces still seems to excited planners, almost 18 years after the end of Apartheid. These planners are obsessed with the creation of instant high streets, plazas and promenades - connecting no place to nowhere. Authentic cities grow organically over time. This fixation with the creation of over regulated plastic spaces has spurned “instant cities” -developments like Montecasino, and Melrose arch. These pastiche, stuck on ‘emblems of cities’, are void of authenticity or evolved context - the urban ideal of the chronically dispossessed. We seem to have forgotten that more important than merely how a city looks, is how it works – a city cannot exist in the designed confines of an entrance and exit boom gate!

While the suburban North of Johannesburg is increasingly dominated by new buildings; housing projects, shopping malls and office parks - each development outdoing its neighbor in the stakes for dullness, and regimentality, old buildings downtown give the city energy, vibrancy and authenticity. Old building stock also offers the opportunity for re -exploration, adoption and re-use – key factors in future sustainable world city development.

It’s frustrating that some architects and planners still see the property boundary as the end of their design responsibility. This tendency leads to the creation of buildings which contribute little or nothing to the urban environment.

The renowned American Urbanist Jane Jacobs, said “Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets”. A city is not simply a collection of buildings created in a void, with streets as a left over space between – the city is a living organism, and as its main public spaces, the streets, are its arteries. In the early 2000’s Urban Ocean, the now jaded pioneers of downtown cool, used Jacob’s quote in a sales brochure– ultimately, they were predicting their own demise. At that stage the streets of Johannesburg were empty, uninviting, and unsafe- the rebirth of a city starts on the street, not the other way around.
When people say that a city is dangerous – perceived or real, they mean that they don’t feel safe on their pavement. 

Sandton Central, is a prime example of a collection of buildings which do not create a city, even though some of the office blocks in the district are architecturally interesting, they are created in an unwalkable, unsustainable vacuum. You can’t force people to use streets that they have no reason to use, and Sandton certainly has no street culture.  
Even new Sandton Buildings, like the iconic 17 Alice lane, turn their backs on the street. Instead of stairs to a lobby, this building is set back from the street, behind a giant concrete car park. Considering the current international trend toward sustainable, walkable urban environments, it seems that Sandton Central is developing on a course towards obsoletion.

Johannesburg Central is a well connected, pedestrian orientated node; the bustling city streets have brought life back to the CBD. Downtown streets are social spaces, community nodes, explosions of colour, energy, and daily interaction. A good example of a successful city retails area - Kerk Street, is a vibrant padestrianised urban mall, here the formal and informal thrive alongside each other – office workers, shoppers, school children and city residents walk, browse, interact, and create a sustainable city.

Through narrowing the trafficable street area, the upgraded Main Street Mall in the financial district now offers wide, New York-esque sidewalks. Broad pavements provide space for pedestrians  -this has in turn spurred the re emergence of downtown café culture -office workers desk bound for decades, too afraid to walk on their own pavements, now venture back into the city streets, creating a node alive with daily activity and interaction. The opportunities for a regenerated city- so far as streetlife goes – endless.

If streets are the arteries of the city, parks and urban squares should be where the city comes alive. Beyers Naude Square, Johannesburgs’ premier civic space, seems to have the makings of a successful urban oasis; it is well located, in a mixed use node, with office, civic and residential buildings on its periphery, which should ensure almost 24 hour usage, yet the space remains empty and unused. Rather than stimulating visual and sensual delight, the square exudes a feeling of dullness, emptiness and blankness. A park is like giant green convenience store – it needs to offer goods in demand in order to attract users and activity – Beyers Naude Square certainly falls miles short in this respect. Why create more parks in downtown Johannesburg when the ones we already have are poorly planned, badly maintained and underutilsed? There is tremendous possibility to ensure the sustainability and renewed redevelopment of the city through the creation of successful urban squares and parks. The city needs to tackle existing unsuccessful urban green space, ensuring that this goal becomes a reality.  

Johannesburg needs to be seen as a living organism; it is difficult to chart the trajectory of where the city is heading, but certainly the future of downtown is vibrant, creative, dynamic and sustainable!

Johannesburg embodies authenticity, grit, inclusivity, multicultural diverse democratic flavor, rich historical context, unexplored experiences, new and authentic environments, patina, history, reinvention, rebirth, exploration, and discovery. How long will we continue to accept the fake, the copy, The Truman Show, the commercially driven knock off, when the authentic original is right in front of us and ripe for the taking? The city is finally transforming from a place for people with nowhere else to go, into the destination for a generation with the world on our doorstep!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Timeless Architecture

What do I think makes timeless architecture ?

I think that I am probably still too young to be qualified to answer this question! The famed modern movement architect Le Corbusier, coined the phrase “a house is a machine for living in”. The clean dynamic lines of the modern movement are probably the embodiment of timelessness -buildings like Corb’s Villa Savoye, designed in 1928, are still as fresh toady as they were 83 years ago! The concept of timelessness seems to be about architecture or design which can transcend fashion. A building like Ponte City in Berea, once the embodiment of urban hip and privilege, has transformed and morphed into a monument to urban decay, white fear and the unknown, yet Ponte still captures our imagination, and is as much a part of the collective conscious of Johannesburg today as when it was built in 1976! While the average suburbanite will never visit Berea, or set foot in a building like Ponte, 35 years later Ponte remains synonymous with Johannesburg, its elegant form imprinted on every iconic Johannesburg skyline. Ponte has transcended the spirit of the time when it was built – adapting to a completely new and different context , a symbol of the contemporary city – Perhaps Ponte is timeless? Good architecture should capture our imagination and inspire us, timeless architecture has the power to do this!

Hope this is ok!
Like I said, your questions are VERY insightful. Hehe!

Friday, October 15, 2010

AZA 2010

I had a conversation about the city with a friend of mine, Werner Kirchoff, the other day. He told me how in his youth he had carved the bases of the flag spires of Anglo Americans stately head office at 45 Main Street.
Standing on Main Street, between the imposing buildings of 44 and 45 there is an overwhelming feeling of permanence, capitalist power, European empire and African history. This is the South African Base of the largest gold mining company in the world! The mall between the buildings is spotless. Apart from the occasional corporate employee darting to an urgent meeting, the street is silent. These stately buildings seem to have existed for millennia, yet I was talking to someone who crafted these monuments in his lifetime.

The conversation highlighted the fact that our Architectural history in Johannesburg is relatively speaking, exceptionally young. The oldest surviving building (in the broadest sense of the term) in the city, the Rissik Street Post Office, built in 1885, is by international standards an infant.

Yet Johannesburg is a rapidly expanding, morphing, shifting, vibrant city. In its short lifetime is has witnessed change and uncertainty which belie the citie’s youth.
Established in 1886, the ZAR government of the time had little faith in the mining camps longevity. By 1889 the reef gave way to rotten pyretic ore which refused to yield any gold –Johannesburg panicked, mines became unprofitable and mining shares crashed almost overnight. ‘’grass will grow on the streets of Johannesburg’’ declared a young mining executive – Percy Fitzpatrick.

History proved otherwise. By 1893, The Goldfields Company of South Africa sent hopes soaring with the announcement that shafts could be sunk to a depth of 5 thousand feet. Johannesburg was saved, its future secured.

The citie’s detractors have been putting nails in Johannesburg’s coffin for over a century – the partial collapse of the CBD in late 80s and white flight to the perceived safety of Sandton and the North is only a more recent chapter in Johannesburg’s chequered history.

My mother used to push me in my pram around the shopping level at Ponte City. Ponte was the embodiment of urban hip- the place to be- the best address in town! –in my lifetime Ponte has transformed into a monument to urban decay, crime, white fear, urban legend, and the unclaimed, unexplored unknown.

Yet how is the contemporary city different to the city our parents knew and largely abandoned? The city our grandparents and great grandparents created.

When I tell people I own the penthouse in the old art deco Ansteys building, reactions span a broad spectrum.

I’m going to make a generalisation and stereotype groups of people and their perceptions of the city, its history and potential.

There are the urban nostalgists, people from my grandparents generation - they are enthralled- reminiscing about the city they remember. The elegant Art Deco buildings of Johannesburg; their impossible sky scraping height soaring above the bustling city side walks.

Conversation inevitably turns to Smokers Corner, the legendary tobacconist with an island shop at Manners Mansions. Shopping at Stuttafords, or John Orrs, and tea on the 4th floor terrace of Ansteys. The lift operators – announcing the different departments from floor to floor, gentlemen in suits and ladies in hats and gloves.
Elegant department stores and window shopping on Eloff Street after a night at His Majesties, or under the stars at the Coliseum. Office workers taking lunch in Oppenheimer Park, with the bronze impala fountain and listening to the clock at the Rissik Street Post office chiming every hour.
Johannesburg was the city of privilege and exclusion. Access by elements deemed undesirable, was heavily restricted – privilege of the few at the expense of the masses.

However, a rich and inclusive social history emerges from this time.
Johannesburg is the city where Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo practised law from Chancellor House; Joe Slovo had offices at His Majesties. The Playwright and anti apartheid activist Cecil Williams, who was arrested together with Nelson Mandela in1962, had a penthouse at Ansteys. Johannesburg was the city of the young Mahatma Gandhi, his passive resistance movement was born virtually across the road from the current 45 Main Building.

Most of my grandparent’s generation have not been near town in 30 years. They assume I must be a very successful architect to have a city penthouse, and that my neighbours are all successful bankers or movie stars – I do own the ex chairman of the Johanesburg Stock Exchanges Manhattan style residence. It’s better that these people don’t visit the city again. Their city exisits solely as a memory, real and vivid, it lives with them.

His Majesties is now a Discom, the lavish marble foyer replaced by banks of tills and cheap ceramic tiles, The Coliseum was demolished in the 80’s, Stuttafords is a stripped out shell, The famous Ansteys department store windows are now ‘dressed’ in dirty steel roller shutters. The Rissik Street Post Office owned by the city, was gutted by fire last November. Solid restoration plans have yet to materialise. The impala fountain in Oppenheimer Park has been evacuated to the safety of the much gentrified financial district. Yet you can still feel the energy of greatness, past and future - history lives in the city!

Then there is the urban pessimist, probably from my parent’s generation. This generation is generally surprised that anyone would still want to inhabit or invest capitol in a city that they left for dead, and abandoned decades ago. Johannesburg is perceived as a no go zone. The CBD for them automatically means the faux city – Sandton, Montecasino, Melrose Arch. They subscribe to the urban nostalgist view of the ideal Johannesburg, the heavily regulated, controlled, monitored, sanitised capitol of an apartheid state.
The American economist and social scientist Mancur Olson noted that the decline of regions is the result of an organizational and cultural hardening of the arteries, which he called “institutional Sclerosis”. Places that grow up and prosper in one era, find it difficult and often impossible to adapt to new organizational and cultural patterns. Consequently, innovation and growth shift to new places.
Rather than engage in the transformation of Johannesburg into a multicultural diverse post apartheid city, these people decamped, shifting to new decentralised cities. Rather than address new realities, they simply designed them away. In a society where public space could no longer be controlled, it was simply eradicated. Ready made cities were created, void of authentic historical context and without reference to an awkward but important history. Bunkers, with no relationship to the street or public environment. New access controlled and monitored high streets designed, facades of an unreal unlived history connecting unspecific areas to non existent communities. History is recreated along nostalgist ideals, sanitised pseudo historic cities, cut and pasted at will. Perhaps archaeologists finding the remains of Montecasiono or Fourways will assume that Johannesburg had in fact been conquered by Tuscan colonists! Are we so uncomfortable with addressing and dealing with our country’s history that we create a faux one to mask our true past? Maphela Ramphele speaks of the African custom of calling a ghost by its name to lay it to rest – contemporary South Africans seem to simply deny our ghosts ever existed.

Ill call the last group of people the new urbanites. These largely fall into my generation, although there are notable exceptions.
Viewing the city as a vibrant minefield of potential, craving real experiences, in genuine, unique environments rich in history and context.. These people want to experience real life in a genuine city. This is a move away from previous attempts to recreate pseudo environments, void of context and history, cities in the suburbs.
Authenticity comes form various aspects of an environment: historic buildings, established neighbourhoods, local culture. It is present in the urban mix in Johannesburg, the juxtaposition of street vendors and international institutions; urban grit alongside renovated buildings; bankers and yuppies walking next to mielie sellers on the street. An authentic place offers unique and unexpected experiences. A place full of chain stores and chain restaurants with no relation to the genius loci is not authentic. Cities are about the unexpected, the gallery ‘discovered’ around the corner, the coffee shop with no name with the Ethiopian hostess who serves freshly brewed Ethiopian coffee to her family at the same table as her patrons, in a building formerly occupied by a British Gentlemen’s club, or a Jewish doctors consulting rooms. A rooftop party with a sweeping view of the city at an architects penthouse. The city is a multi cultural and historical area, and provides a backdrop for interaction between people from very diverse segments of society.

Unfortunately much of the redevelopment of the city has followed a pattern of large companies buying up old buildings and refurbishing them along similar generic lines of mass, mid income rental housing stock. The intrinsic value of these buildings, their history, the patina of time, is overlooked. How is this model really any different from Paulshof or Midrand? Granted, the buildings in town are far prettier, but it’s the same concept.

Positive development of historical contexts is certainly emerging. The fantastic refurbishment of the old turbine hall for Anglogold Ashanti, the Barbican building left to rot for decades had been completely restored, Buildings like 87 Commissioner converted into trendy loft apartments, without stripping away the age and history of the structure. Creative communities finding new homes in formerly abandoned warehouses at Arts on Main, renewed interest in iconic old buildings like Ansteys.

Johannesburg is a diverse and inclusive environment. If the heritage aspect of this area is respected, it will retain its spirit as a unique, authentic, inclusive environment. Perhaps this is because my generation is able to view the city with fresh vision, unencumbered by experiences or preconceptions of past generations. Our genuine, collective history is there for us to rediscover, reimagine and refine, creating our own authentic future.