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Thinking outside the silo

The fall and rise of Jo’burg’s Ponte City tower

It was the ‘gateway to Johannesburg’ when it opened in 1975, the premier apartment complex in South Africa, complete with shopping mall, bowling alley, swimming pool and tennis courts in its labyrinthine podium. Designed by 29-year-old architect Rodney Grosskopff, Ponte City Tower stood as a majestic concrete cylinder, its 54 storeys crowned with the biggest illuminated sign in the southern hemisphere. Aimed exclusively at the country’s white ruling elite, it contained the most expensive flats on the continent: the six triplex penthouses had their own saunas, wine cellars and barbecue patios – plus dedicated rooms for servants.

But 20 years later, it was the most potent symbol of Johannesburg’s drastic urban decay. Nicknamed ‘suicide central’, the building had been taken over by gangs, its electricity and water cut off and its vast inner atrium piled with trash to the 14th floor. As one resident puts it, it was ‘a place where you could get an acid trip, a gun, an illegal passport or a prostitute, all within five minutes.’ 

Standing on the sloping bedrock at the base of the building today, looking up through the vertiginous bush-hammered concrete tube to a small blue circle of sky, it’s not hard to see why Ponte City has been used as a location for a number of dystopian sci-fi films. Off-limits for years, and still in the centre of a no-go neighbourhood, it is now possible to visit thanks to Dlala Nje, a young social enterprise that runs tours of the building and the surrounding area, ploughing tourist dollars into running a kids’ community centre in the building.

‘We wanted to make a safe space,’ says Franck Leya, a young tour guide and Congolese refugee, who has lived in the tower since the mid-2000s. ‘It’s a place for children to come and do their homework after school and just hang out, without being pestered by gangs.’ Taking over one of the former retail units at the base of the building, the youth club set up by Dlala Nje (Zulu for ‘just play’) is one of a number of optimistic signs of the troubled building’s recent revival.

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Hillbrow, where Ponte City rises from a rocky slope, had always defied apartheid’s ‘whites only’ designation. It was a cosmopolitan neighbourhood of artists and intellectuals where interracial mixing was common. After fruitless attempts to control who lived there, the authorities washed their hands of the district, cut off power and withdrew policing. In the 1990s it became a refuge for black newcomers from the townships and elsewhere in Africa, who moved into the tower as whites fled to the suburbs. Built to house around 3,000 people, at the height of its occupation the building was home to 10,000.

Its owner embarked on a clean-up in the early 2000s, before a developer arrived at the peak of the property boom in 2007 with a plan to return the tower to its former glory. It stripped out half the apartments, evicted 1,500 residents and fitted out a handful of flats with luxury finishes, giving them names like ‘Zen-Like’, ‘Moroccan Delight’ and ‘Old Money’. It didn’t last long: the 2008 global financial crisis put paid to these high-end ambitions and the building reverted to its original owner, complete with a new pile of trash in the atrium from the strip-out.

Now the complex is back on the up. Renovated for the 2010 World Cup, with new lifts and finger-print security, it is neither exclusive enclave nor den of iniquity, but a cross-section of working and middle-class residents, from teachers and nurses to students and Congolese, Nigerian and Zimbabwean immigrants, along with the occasional hipster. As a story of apartheid hubris, calamitous collapse and tentative revival, this bold building is a poignant barometer of the fortunes of the wider city itself. •

Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian


DOWN THE TUBE

Ponte City Tower has long been a star of the silver screen: alien space ships hovered over it in District 9, gangsters staged dogfights in its cylindrical core in Chappie, and Navy Seals stormed through the building in search of Congolese warlords in Seal Team 8: Behind Enemy Lines. Resident Evil took it a step further, placing the tower in the middle of a gutted metropolis at the end of human history.

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