Ponte City – a South African landmark – rises again
Hijacked by gangs and buried in trash, Africa's tallest apartment building gets a new look: out with the orange shag rugs, in with "Global Fusion."
Johannesburg, South Africa
With bouncing step, Nour Addine Ayyoub walks toward what is known here as "the core."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"Don't look, don't look yet," he says. He stops and leans one elbow on a tired, rusted railing – the only barrier between him and a hundred-foot drop. He's grinning.
"OK," he says proudly. "Look."
Soaring upward is the empty, inner cylinder of one of South Africa's most famous structures: Ponte City, the tallest residential building in the Southern Hemisphere.
Fifty-four stories of dirty concrete and broken windows claw toward a circle of open air; pigeons swoop through the dimness. Below, seven stories, are the exposed, sloping boulders that make up the core's floor. Builders weren't able to blast away the rock to make a flat surface.
Well, yes. A strange comparison for a developer to make, perhaps – but for Ayyoub and codeveloper David Selvan, who are putting more than $12 million into the Ponte's rehabilitation, the plotline of life, death, and rebirth seems to hold appeal. And apparently this means no shying away from signs of the building's menacing past.
What about the rumor that people got pushed down the core during the 1990s when Ponte City became synonymous with African crime and urban decay?
"Oh I'm sure," he says. "It was Johannesburg."
• • •
Once, in the 1970s, Ponte was the place to live in Johannesburg, which people here called the New York City of Africa. It was on the edge of Hillbrow, a bustling, cosmopolitan neighborhood of artists and intellectuals where cafes and bookshops stayed open late and where, even under the tight rule of apartheid, interracial mixing was common.
"Hillbrow was really the center of life," recalls architect Rodney Grosskopff, who started designing the Ponte in 1973. After brainstorming with his colleagues, Mr. Grosskopff decided to make this new residential structure a cylinder – the first circular skyscraper in Africa, perched on a cliff-like peninsula overlooking downtown's main eastern artery.
"It would be a new thing, to go and build a round tower," he recalls.
He knew it had to be tall to fit all the units that the developers wanted, so he designed a 568-foot concrete and steel giant, adding a new focal point to the city's skyline. Because of bylaws requiring kitchens and bathrooms to have a window, he decided to leave an open, 32,000 square foot inner core, which let light into apartments from both sides. They put retail stores at the bottom and had plans to include an indoor ski slope on the core floor. They built saunas and chrome bars in all the penthouses.
"You can imagine my surprise when I went back to one of those penthouses [recently]," he says, "and there was still orange, shaggy dog carpeting – on the walls."
Then, in the 1990s, the end of apartheid in South Africa meant that anyone could move into the formerly whites-only downtown. Hillbrow, one of the "gray areas" where both races lived and worked, became an epicenter for this newfound freedom. But soon, white flight, employment shortages and a flood of jobless immigrants from other African countries set the neighborhood – like the rest of downtown Johannesburg – into an economic tailspin. Crime rates soared.