Joburg architecture: A life of transition

#113. Go to the Women’s Gaol at Constitution Hill for the launch of Clive Chipkin’s Johannesburg Transition, an intensely written 500-page tome detailing this city’s architecture and society since 1950.

Interestingly the Gaol, with its exhibits focused as they are on female prisoners being deprived of underwear,  seemed a fitting place for the launch of a book that is about a city that lets it all hang out.

Introducing the book on Saturday, Anglo-American’s Bobby Godsell said that there are four words he uses to describe this city: “Global” – “as with all things modern this city has a tagline  ‘Johannesburg: a world class city’ although I am not sure if it’s a world class city it is clearly worldly and engaged with the world around it”. He set about detailing the many architectural styles that “have washed up on the shores of the Braamfontein Spruit” from the Edwardian neo-classicism  of the city’s oldest banks and finance houses to the Art Deco complex in Delta Park that referenced New York in the 1930s.

His second word was  “diversity” as the city is not represented by any one architectural style . “Everything is available from slums and shantytowns to the little Ireland of Parkview… Post-apartheid those excluded have made their presence felt”. He spoke about watching the construction of the Kerk Street Mosque from his office in Diagonal Street, a project that took 10 years to complete.

“Ambitious” was his third word for this city where Eskom built the tallest modern building in Africa in the 1930’s and the icons of ambition such as the Carlton Centre, Ponte and Saxonwold’s  Arc de Triomphe abound.

And finally, “Contradiction –  When the Carlton Centre was completed in 1974 it was heralded as our Rockerfeller Centre”. Today the hotel that was the setting of much political negotiation of South Africa’s post-apartheid future in the 80s and 90s is a shadow of itself.

For my part I miss the chocolate shoes that my mother would bring back from the Koffiehuis, a Dutch coffee shop in the hotel lobby. And there were few families who hadn’t nicked a Three Ships ashtray to mark the fact that they had eaten at one of Joburg’s finest restaurants. The owners finally got wise to these souvenir hunters and to avoid the emabarrasment of confronting their well-heeled guests, would discreetly add the item, once filched,  to the bill.

Godsell’s view is that the challenge is to manage the contradictions thrown up by this city. “Johannesburg is the New York City and Hong Kong of Africa where dreams are possible”. And Godsell should know – he was a key player in transforming Newtown’s neglected and decaying Turbine Hall into the proud headquarters of Anglo Gold.

Clive Chipkin had a lot less to say and didn’t dwell much on the city or the book. But it’s forgiveable considering the effort it must have taken to assemble what is truly a gift to Johannesburg.  The book, a follow-up to his Johannesburg Style: Architecture and Society 1880’s -1960, ends on an uplifting note: “Much of our vibrant culture has historically come out of suburban back rooms, slum yards and township ghettoes. Visions of Zion come from the rivulet-spruits with warning notices of flood hazards, bilharzia, typhoid and cholera. These are our perceived tributaries of the River Jordan in a New Jerusalem. Despite much prevailing cynicism, choral chants from the spruits transform the ordinariness of the suburban landscape with visions of utopia”.

*Johannesburg Transition: Architecture & Society from 1950 is published by STE Publishers

One thought on “Joburg architecture: A life of transition

  1. Awesome post laurice. I just love the centre of Joburg. Last year in September I took a visitor from Boston who is an Architect, through Killarney, up Munroe Drive, Constitution Hill, Hillbrow, New Doornfontein, Noord St. Into the Rand club. Lunch at the top of the Carlton and then down Louis Botha Avenue all on a Saturday. she was blown away by what we have

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