Johannesburg trying to follow Miami with its Art Deco revival

Art Deco and South Africa are words not normally uttered in the same sentence.

But they should be.

Preservationists here claim that the Johannesburg area has the third-largest number of Art Deco buildings of any city in the world. While both the city and the buildings have suffered neglect, a flurry of new proposals promises to polish the scrolled brass on Johannesburg's Art Deco palaces - its Chrysler Building- and Rockefeller Center-inspired monoliths.

A nonprofit is now planning walking tours to highlight the city's hitherto unappreciated architectural heritage, and new preservation groups and Art Deco societies in the area are hoping to raise awareness of these buildings and save threatened specimens from the wrecking ball.

This comes at a time when Johannesburg is sorely in need of boosters. The Johannesburg Stock exchange moved from the city center to a suburban office complex last month. With that one move, Johannesburg lost more than 100,000 workers. Other large employers are planning to follow.

"Johannesburg has reached its lowest point," says Katherine Cox, a senior planner with the Central Johannesburg Partnership, an urban revitalization nonprofit. "Now we're getting plans in place to bounce back."

The Art Deco buildings of Johannesburg, its suburbs, and the nearby city of Springs are monuments to one of the greatest boom times in South African history - the 1930s. It was during this decade that the price of gold skyrocketed, and lifted this country - and this city founded by gold-miners - out of the Great Depression. The construction boom that ensued saw skyscrapers rivaling those in New York spring from South Africa's dry veld grassland.

"Art Deco in Johannesburg, writes Frederico Fresch in De Arte magazine, "served to create for this dusty - if rapidly expanding - town in one of the farthest reaches of the empire ... a sense of wealth and glamour." The South African architecture expert says the "would-be sophistication" was meant to "counteract the incipient provincialism associated with a colonial city."

Driving through Johannesburg's city center, architect Herbert Prins points out the grandes dames remaining, windows smashed, entrances shuttered, and paint peeling.

"There's an Art Deco building, and another next door and another," he says on one particularly rich stretch of Commissioner Street. "People just don't notice them. But if they were fixed up, given some fresh paint, I think they could be a great source of civic pride."

Miami, after all, has made its name as a great place to seek sleek Art Deco structures. And two of Johannesburg's best known architects helped build that reputation. The Obel brothers, Marc and L.T., worked in Miami once the curved lines, Egyptian flavor, and decorative brass work of Art Deco fell out of favor back in Johannesburg.

The style remained unappreciated here until the 1980s when developers applied to demolish the Colosseum, a 3,000-seat movie house with a stained-glass depiction of Atlas supporting South Africa and an ornate Egyptian facade. Architects, preservationists, and ordinary residents protested its demolition - marking the beginning of Art Deco awareness in Johannesburg. The theater was razed despite the protests.

"The public finally became aware," says Mr. Prins, himself a resident in a suburban Art Deco apartment building. "For Johannesburg these buildings are as important as the Tower of London is to London."

Recognition of the style is now spreading. About two years ago Micha Birch, then a member of South Africa's National Monuments Committee, approached the city of Springs to organize an exhibition on its Art Deco architecture. "Springs is absolutely incredible," she says. "One building, next to another, next to another - all Art Deco. And most of it in very good condition."

However, until Ms. Birch appeared at a town council meeting, architecture book in hand, many residents of Springs had no idea their town was architecturally significant. She recalls, "They said 'Oh really?' " Birch is hopeful more such awakenings will follow, with Cape Town playing host to the Seventh World Congress on Art Deco in March 2003.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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