Travel and Leisure 2007-2013


On Architecture in Johannesburg

First appeared
Saturday, 01 May 2010

The fire that gutted the Rissik Street Post Office in downtown Johannesburg last year, turning the 113-year old building into a blackened shell, sparked renewed interest in the question: do Joburgers care about their architectural heritage?

After all, the iconic façade is almost as old as the city itself, and its neglect over the years – it had been boarded up and frequently vandalised since 1996 – seemed to reflect an indifferent attitude towards the (comparatively few) centenarian constructions in South Africa’s largest city. Some even suggested that it should be demolished.

Of course, the ‘build ’em up, bash ’em down’ mentality is well entrenched in Jozi. Sixty years ago, Herman Charles Bosman – an ardent Joburg flâneur – was already complaining about his fellow citizens’ propensity to flatten any building that was more than a few decades old.

Suffice to say, these days Johannesburg isn’t known for its architecture. Clive Chipkin and various others have produced books recording its changing visual character over the last 130 years. Yet the perception of most visitors – and of many who live in Joburg – is that its urban aesthetic is defined by new developments: flashy high-rises in Sandton, ‘Afro-Tuscan’ housing complexes within the city’s ever-expanding boundaries, and informal settlements on its fringes.

Movers and shakers within the architectural fraternity are, however, trying to change all that. If you pay careful attention as you travel across the city, you can spot a growing number of original constructions or radical renovations that offer a foretaste of what will hopefully become Johannesburg’s new style. They are retail outlets, art galleries, residential spaces, public squares – and they are likely to be among the talking points when, later this year, the Architecture ZA 2010 conference and festival gets underway.

One member of the AZA organising team, Sarah Calburn, has been putting words into action through some of her own recent designs. Calburn is an outspoken critic of various aspects of urban planning in Johannesburg, noting that most of the city’s architectural innovation takes place in ‘hidden, interior’ places; she feels that the city ‘limits points of contact between its citizens – our public spaces are mostly pavements and traffic islands’.

High walls, restricted-access zones and other signs of a security-obsessed city may be a response to crime levels but, Calburn argues, they also aggravate divisions between the citizens of the city, between those who ‘belong’ and those who are ‘loitering’. And so we are left with the paradox that Joburg’s architectural signature is ‘simultaneous display and concealment’: displays of wealth in formidable exteriors (according to Calburn, the arches and columns of austere neo-classical forms are favoured by so many developers because they provide a false sense of stability in an unstable society), matched with concealment of our privatised working and living spaces.

The opposition between display and concealment is manifested in two renovation projects undertaken by Calburn: Gallery Momo in Parkview and the Paul Smith boutique in Parkhurst. Momo, deriving its name from owner Monna Mokoena, is adapted from ‘a typical Parktown suburban house’. Its exterior has been simplified into the horizontal and vertical lines of a box which exposes its interior to passers-by (or, more often, drivers-by). This emphasises the gallery’s function as a ‘container of objects’, drawing the eye to the artworks inside.

By contrast, the contents of the Paul Smith shop are deliberately hidden from view. In a cheeky echo of the clothing designer’s headquarters in Los Angeles, Calburn chose to replace the roof of the building with a solid pink glass box, creating a second storey. This colourful but opaque surface reinforces the idea that the shop sells merchandise accessible only to the fortunate few.

Calburn was pleased that the Paul Smith franchise chose to locate their store on a street rather than in an enclosed mall environment – to her, ubiquitous Johannesburg shopping centres represent exactly the kind of inclusion/exclusion dynamic from which the city needs to free itself. It’s ironic, then, that the clothing sold on the premises brands itself in terms of ‘exclusivity’. So Calburn insists that her design for the building is ‘not a solution’ to the problems she and others have identified, but ‘a game, played on an idea of Joburg culture’.

This playfulness is also expressed in the eclectic range of architectural styles preserved from the building’s former incarnations. Below the glass box, a ‘Georgian’ portico and colonnade have been preserved. This is certainly not the house’s original design, as Calburn – who grew up in Parkhurst – well knows: ‘A generation ago Parkhurst was all facebrick and corrugated iron; it certainly wasn’t trendy! We shouldn’t be ‘precious’ about history, but should maintain a conversation with the past.’ So, as a gesture towards that era, Calburn insisted that the old roof strut behind the box remained visible.

Her clients weren’t entirely happy about this but Calburn is adamant that, while one of an architect’s key skills should be listening, architects shouldn’t just ‘give clients what they want’: ‘If we simply follow instructions from clients, we’re doing a cut-and-paste job based on previous designs that they’ve seen. The problem is that architects have become purveyors of style, of fashion, so we’re not taken seriously and are seen as decorators. Instead, we should be seen as translators – translating clients’ desires into physical space. More importantly, architects should be responsible for producing culture, for re-imagining cities; the buildings you see, live and work in shape your mode of operation.’

Some of Calburn’s colleagues apply the same conviction to their projects. Take, for example, Circa Gallery – the newest addition to the Joburg fine arts scene. When the owners of the well-known Everard Read Gallery decided to open an exhibition space over the road, they were aware that investors in the arts establishment have a responsibility to spend their property capital on buildings that are works of art in themselves.

This is undoubtedly true of Circa, conceived and executed by Pierre Swanepoel of studioMAS architects. Swanepoel shares Calburn’s passion for creating not only individual buildings that are a delight to see and occupy, but an entire urban landscape that is more public-oriented and, indeed, future-oriented (anticipating Joburg in generations to come). Swanepoel points out that some of the ‘sexy’ buildings in Sandton are ‘nice from far but far from nice – at ground level, which is where most of us experience a building, they distance themselves from their environment’.

Thus, the Circa building was conceived as ‘iconic yet accessible’. The long, thin aluminium palings that wind elliptically around the building are visually striking, but they cover a walkway around and through the gallery’s rooms that seamlessly connects the ground level and the roof. A multi-purpose construction that makes inventive use of a limited ground area, Circa embodies Swanepoel’s description of his vocation as ‘a mixture of common sense and poetry’.

The building is also ‘off the grid’: it is largely self-sufficient insofar as it uses solar panels and harvested rain water rather than city council services. Swanepoel cautions, however, against the trend to ‘greenwash’ buildings by adding features that seem to conserve energy resources – a trend that doesn’t actually engage with the fundamental need to ‘re-establish relationships with fauna and flora in urban areas’.

For Swanepoel, there are ‘too many buildings trying to be special’ instead of ‘being humble and blending into the urban fabric’. Yet bold architectural developments have the potential to affect that fabric positively – such as the large-scale public space designed by studioMAS for the Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. The construction here is heavily symbolic (relating to the signing of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown in 1955), but it is also ‘a centre around which the city will grow organically, with its community’ in the years to come.

Walter Sisulu Square may be one of the public arenas in which Joburgers share their lives, but it remains true that those with the means to do so prefer to retreat to private, domestic spaces. Still, it is possible to find a balance between the two – as demonstrated by Main Street Life, a development instigated by Jonathan Liebmann of Propertuity.

Liebmann, the driving force behind the Arts on Main complex in downtown Jozi, has created an artistic hub in the self-proclaimed Maboneng Precinct (‘Place of Light’). Arts on Main, an industrial warehouse and office space converted into studios, galleries and retail outlets, houses tenants as diverse as William Kentridge, the Goethe Institute, David Krut Projects and the Goodman Gallery.

After the successful launch of Arts on Main, Liebmann and architect Enrico Daffonchio set their collaborative sights on another nearby industrial structure with a view to turning it into a mixed-use building buzzing with the combined creative energy of resident artists, shop-owners and hotel guests. The idea behind the hotel (dubbed ‘The 12 Decades’) is to represent the 120-year history of Johannesburg in its twelve rooms, each of which will have a design distinctive to a particular decade.

Some time ago I walked with Liebmann through the building – then a construction site thick with the smell of wet plaster and the noise of jackhammers – up to the roof, which is to be an events venue with a panoramic view across the eastern and southern stretches of Jozi. To see the world through Daffonchio and Liebmann’s eyes, I learned then, is to see a world of possibility. Now, a mere six months later, the building is ready to take its place in the collage of visionary Joburg architecture.

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