Joburg's Newtown gets an electric makeover

#29. Take a trip into Newtown to see the “new” Turbine Hall. In the mid-1990s I used to walk from the Sunday Times’ offices in the Diamond Building in Diagonal Street, to the West Street Parking Arcade. Diagonal Street was a blur of noise and colour, shweshwe fabrics and leopard print blankets, Converse high tops and dried monkey skins at the muti shop, with  traders hanging out on the street outside their stores.

By contrast the Turbine Hall, Joburg’s first power station, dating back to 1927, stood derelict with hundreds of broken window panes — as if in defiance of the “fixing broken windows” method of crime fighting — made globally popular by Police Commissioner William Bratton of the New York Police Department who famously cleaned up NYC in the 90’s much like Batman cleaned up Gotham. He made the Weekly Mail’s headlines a number of times for doing it.

The Turbine Hall, Newtown, Johannesburg, photographed in March 2005

The Turbine Hall’s cavernous deserted spaces soon became a magnet for the city’s poor and dispossessed.

Today, looking up at the newly renovated building that is now Jeppe Street’s Turbine Square, the headquarters of mining giant AngloGold Ashanti, it’s  hard to recall that. Much of the old has been retained — but the internal structure of the building has been lit by natural light flowing through skylights and huge glass windows — and cleverly integrated with a modern open plan office space that has the finish of a luxury hotel.

It’s amazing how a space can transform one’s way of working and of thinking, and how just by removing walls you can promote a sense of openness and remove some of the awkwardness associated with traditional hierarchies. The office space has no doors, and even the CEO’s “office” is open — although I did ask whether there were any laser beams that might prevent someone from entering. (Clearly, I have watched Batman once too often). I was assured this was not the case.

To preserve the building which is a heritage site (not that that usually makes a difference in this city where history is regularly bulldozed to make way for cluster developments  and shiny car showrooms) the architects (Joburg firm TPS) constructed a building within a building, cleverly retaining and highlighting the industrial structure while adding  contemporary features like glass walls and steel cubes.

Interestingly the history of the building is never far away with huge photographs of the previous denizens of the Turbine Hall — vagrants, homeless and hungry people — lining the walls of one of the corporate dining areas, making for a fascinating contrast and probably, unintentionally,  a slightly uncomfortable dining experience. The basement, which has been left largely untouched, still bears the graffitti from earlier visitors. You can sense  the presence of those who occupied the space prior to its renovation.

The restoration of the building as one of Joburg’s landmarks and its makeover into a “green” building with solar heating and other environmentally friendly features is a commitment to the city, and bodes well for Newtown. And if for no other reason, make your way to Newtown and head for the public entrance to the South Boiler Hall to take a look at Marco Cianfanelli’s laser-cut steel sculpture “37 years of gold” – a depiction of the highs and lows of the substance that built this city. To see what the building looks like today, go to Thys Dullart’s slideshow on the The Times .

2 thoughts on “Joburg's Newtown gets an electric makeover

  1. This brought back some memories. The Turbine Hall first grabbed my attention when went the Market Theater in high school to see anti-apartheid plays, and on Saturdays to browse at the flea market. It towered over the square like a cathedral, with walls of broken casement windows, a giant bruised relic of the power station it once was – literally the engine room of Johannesburg. It has always seemed symbolic of Jo’burg’s story, an architectural survivor in a place where no (old) building is sacred.

    It was outside the Turbine Hall that I experienced my first mugging with my friend R and his girlfriend, Z. Well, I wasn’t actually mugged so much as watch in slow motion as Z got mugged. She was walking a few steps behind us, when she was accosted by two men, one throttling her for a few seconds while grabbed our camera bags which she’d been nonchalantly dangling. The muggers quickly dropped their loot and bolted when R and I heard her screaming and came to her aid. OK, it was totally R that came to her aid, I just froze. R was much bigger than me. But still. I don’t know what we were thinking, a bunch of northern suburb nebbishes walking around swinging our expensive cameras in one of the most poverty stricken parts of Jo’burg. I finally realized that there might be some truth to my mother’s neurotic warnings, which I always reflexively dismissed. We were all pretty shaken up, and hightailed it back to the relative safety of the flea market, only a block away, where Z just sobbed and sobbed. That place attracted some crazy characters, one of whom, a grungy guy dressed in a tie-dyed shirt and Aladdin pants, came up and asked us what had happened. When we told him the horrible tale he stabbed the air with his fist and screamed, “VIOLENCE!!” and then walked away. He pronounced it, “vio-lens”.

    It was in the shadow of the Turbine Hall that as a cherubic 16 year old I miraculously made it past the bouncer for the first time into a bar – the jazz club, Kippies, while my parents sat in their car and watched, pensively – secretly hoping, I’m sure, that I would get kicked out so they could return me to the safety of our northern suburbs home. (This was not, mind you, my first attempt. I had tried before and failed. )

  2. Pingback: Nothing to do in Joburg besides … » Blog Archive » Joburg architecture: A life of transition

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