When you first arrive in Johannesburg, one of the buildings you spot is the iconic Ponte City. There’s no way one can drive about in the city and not notice it. Its story is as noticeable.
The German writer Norman Ohler once described Johannesburg’s Ponte City as Africa’s tallest residential building – “Ponte sums up all the hope, all the wrong ideas of modernism, all the decay, all the craziness of the city. It is a symbolic building, a sort of white whale, it is concrete fear, the tower of Babel, and yet it is strangely beautiful. -”
In the 1970s, Ponte was the place to live in Johannesburg, the New York City of Africa. It was on a bustling, cosmopolitan neighbourhood of artists and intellectuals where cafes and bookshops stayed open late and where, even under the tight rule of apartheid, interracial mixing was common. The building designed in Brutalist architectural style, began life in 1975 offering luxurious apartments for the privileged class of Johannesburg.
It perfectly encapsulates the story of Apartheid. White people occupied the outward-facing apartments, their servants relegated to the spaces facing the inner core. If you were South African, wealthy and had aspirations, Ponte City – as it was first known – was the place to be. It was set to become the city’s most luxurious residential building, housing many of the city’s wealthiest citizens with three-storey apartments, retails units, and a jacuzzi on the roof. But things did not go as planned and by the mid-1980s, the affluent white community had moved to the suburbs and gangs moved in instead. The tower became known as a “lair” for Johannesburg’s underworld. In the 1990s, tales of drug dealers, prostitutes and criminals running free within its walls peppered local reports. The neighborhood became one of the most dangerous in the city.
Ponte City has been known as a symbol of poverty and indifference, the building falling into disrepair. After nearly four decades of decline, the bottom of the tower’s light well was covered by a three-story heap of garbage instead of the intended indoor ski slope.
Until recently, the thought of venturing into Ponte Tower was cringe-worthy to many South Africans.
But all is not bleak in the brutalist building, after much work, after a long and steady decline, the building is experiencing its forthcoming. There is a massive metamorphosis going on, people are coming back to the inner city. Initiatives like Dlala Nje are eager to change the perception of the building, the next door Maboneng Precinct and brand new Museum of African Design are also all helping the regeneration of the area.
Today, the building reigns over its part of Johannesburg’s skyline, no longer in luxury, but no longer in apocalyptic chaos, either. It is, rather, mixed-income, mixed-race (to a degree), and relatively safe. Almost all the 54 floors have been redone and the notorious core has been cleared out of its mattresses, kitchen fittings and dead stray cats.
A new found heaven for the middle class, it boasts a 75% occupancy, and up to 10 applications a day for the remaining units. It is once again a safe place to live for the first time in three decades. “We have a good mix of people here. South Africans, people from the Congo, Zambians, Zimbabweans we all live here together” says Maki Tsekefetsa, a receptionist at Ponte.
This short documentary by director Philip Bloom gives us a closer look at the building’s history and its current inhabitants. A fascinating exploration of urban decay and regeneration, a chronicle of modern-day South African society. Highly recommended.
Ponte Tower was designed in 1975 by architects Hermer and Grosskopf.
Photos courtesy of Mikhael Subotzky & Philip Bloom
Ponte Tower (2012)
Film edited & directed by: Philip Bloom
Assistants: Rick Joaquim & Dale Balantine
Music courtesy of: The Music Bed