28 February 2013

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19 February 2013

Ponte Inside-Out

Ponte from afar

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the inside of Ponte City Apartments, one of Joburg's landmark building on the edge of Berea and Hillbrow. The Ponte tower stands high on a hill, a tubular masterpiece topped by a glowing magenta advert for Vodacom. Ponte was once voted second-most ugly building in Joburg. That seems unfair. Built by the 29 year old Rodney Grosskopff, Ponte has variously been called "a failed architectural attempt at avant-garde skyscraper living" and "a den of iniquity run by drug dealers and thugs".

That was during the sad days after the end of Apartheid, when whites left the CBD neighbourhoods and the area became a neglected dumping ground for immigrants and the poor. There was once a plan to turn it into a prison (as if it wasn't that already when the rubbish piled up inside the core to the 6th floor and whole storeys had been converted into brothels and shooting galleries).
Inside the core, looking up at the hallway windows

At some stage there was a revival. The building was to be renovated from the ground up, with penthouse flats and flash furnishings. Plans for the unique, tubular core have included a climbing centre and a ski slope. There were financial wranglings, and then a recession, and it all fell apart. But, as if willing itself to be a symbol of the CBD's rebirth, there is now another, more sustainable initiative. The revamped ground floor with open spaces and clean shop floors will hopefully bring in paying visitors, a new biometric security system give a sense of safety, spanking new lifts replace the old creaky affairs.
I learnt all this only after my visit last week as part of the Yeoville walk. Now I am a little obsessed with the place.

It's hard to stop looking up
Access to Ponte's core is actually open to all who dare. You just need to find the toilets in the shopping precinct and open the door to the internal stairs. We start by descending a decidedly skanky concrete staircase into the bowel of the hollow round interior of the skyscraper. While all the flats look out over the skyline of the CBD, the corridors give out to the inside of the tower. As we stand at ground level I am struck how the building clearly rises from the raw rock. It looks like a lava flow has solidified in the middle of the cavernous space. I first thought the fluid-looking slope was a torrent of composting refuse left from the previous state of disrepair, but then I realise it's designed like that. The image is of a human-built structure emerging from the bare rock as if extruded into existence.
The building rising from bare rock

High up we can see clouds scudding past the circular blue cutout of the walls, but light barely reaches down here. The building partly sits on a two storey car park, a concrete grid letting in a little light from the side. We stumble across slippery slopes in the dimness, trying not to step into rubbish. Apparently the place is still abused as a quick disposal unit: egg shells, condoms, nappies, the usual. The space reminds me of the Gasometer in Oberhausen, a former gas tank repurposed into an art space. That space is lidded, and nowhere near as tall, but with the same feeling of infinity, of air and light bouncing off a circular space.
A tiny glimpse of the sky from the base of the core

We ascend back to the ground floor to enter through the heavy security into the building proper. A serious looking guard behind a window, ID to show and a book to sign, a fingerprint scanner to operate the revolving gates - this place is as tight as Fort Knox. We ascend to a flat on the 52nd floor in one of the new lifts, padding covering the gleaming steel interior. Previously the flat was a two storey penthouse apartment - we can still see the stairs going nowhere next to his front door - but now it is a two-bedroom loft with a large open-spaced living room/kitchen. He is sharing with another person, bedroom off either side of the living room for privacy, and pays R5400 per month! The view, of course, is stunning. The windows open, giving a frisson of vertigo when I hold out my arm to take a photo. Fresh air wafts in with the view across the south of Jozi, a unique vantage point.
The view from the 52nd floor

Much has been written about Ponte by people who are more knowledgable than I am about Jozi's recent history. It makes me think that the building, standing prominently on Jozi's skyline, is considered a cypher for something bigger, a hope of renewal, a marker in history. My obsession grows.
A human being for size comparison
Update April 2012: I discovered a poetic little film about Ponte

Also, another article has the strange assertion that the design has flats for whites looking out and flats for black servants looking into the core of the building. As far as I could see all the flats had views to the outside, and the windows overlooking the inner core lined the corridors. Am I missing something?

13 February 2013

A stroll through Yeoville

The View from Observatory Hill towards Hillbrow
Going for a stroll through Johannesburg's neighbourhoods might seem to be an unlikely occupation for a sunny Saturday, specially when the destination is Yeoville, former bohemian hotspot and more recently decried as a symbol for the downfall of the city: "Dangerous. Full of criminal elements. Dirty. Rundown. Ruined." These are some of the more polite things said about Yeoville. Well, I have already been to Hillbrow, Soweto, Joubert Park, the Carlton Centre and other parts of town that I have been told are all these things, and I enjoyed every one of them.

Public Art
So last Saturday Heather introduced me to Jozi's latest walking tour outfit: Nick and Loopy from Dlala Nje (Just Play in Zulu). Dlala Nje (their website is not live yet, so for more info go to Urban Joburg’s blog) is a cafe and art place in one of the empty shops at Ponte City, the iconic circular building on a hill in Berea/Hillbrow (more on Ponte another day - I'll just say the photos are amazing...). They have been running Hillbrow tours since October, but are now branching out to Yeoville.

Saturday worshippers on Observatory Hill
We first walk up to Observatory Hill, from where we have a great view of the CBD and Ponte. The park - if it can be called that - on the hill is pretty rough, with aloe clumps and high weeds in every dip. In between the grass has been shorn, and despite the cleaning crew still dotted with rubbish. Under a tree a huge pile of old tyres have accumulated. It's Saturday, and the hillside is filled with groups of worshippers. On the edge of the hill a man in a white tunic on his knees is blessing the young man kneeling opposite him, his hands on the other's head. Nearby a woman and small child sit, watching. Under a tree a priest kneels, hands pressed tightly together. He doesn't seem to have a congregation. Below us on a slope a dozen people stand listening to a grey-haired man telling serious parables with a furrowed brow. Off to one side a woman is playing with a small toddler, head covered under a blanket to keep out the sun. She looks the picture of Mary and the (unruly) Child. A man in a jogging outfit is sitting by himself far down the slopes. Arms wrapped around his knees, he is lost in thoughts.

Westminster Mansions
Just across from the hill, amidst the relative poverty of Yeoville and Observatory Hill sits Westminster Mansions. A confection of turrets and pillars, balustrades and balconies in cream and magnolia, it makes an incongruous impression. A grand entrance draped in barbed wire and the admonishing signs of security companies speak of an illustrious history fallen to ruin. We look up at the block, teetering precariously on the slope of the hill, and imagine the magnificent views of a city that has stumbled, trying to right itself. I guess the inhabitants must be still there, waiting for that day.

The cleaning ladies were keen to have their photo taken
Past the water tower we descend into Yeoville proper. At first the gridded streets have the relatively serene look of suburbia, single-storey houses such as the ones I see all over the colonies: porch, small front garden behind a street-side fence or wall, a car port to the side. Streets are lined with Jacarandas, quiet and shady. Then I notice that many street-facing walls have been modified with a cubby hole that is used as a little shop, called a Spaza. There one can buy anything from airtime to bananas, washing powder and bread. Some houses advertise their use as hair salons or car mechanics, undertakers or key cutters.

A Spaza shop
We arrive in Yeo street and Nick tells us that Yeoville was founded in 1890 by an Englishman named Thomas Yeo Sherwell from Yeovil in Somerset. The idea was to create a neighbourhood with clean air far above the smelly coal town in the valley, but the location didn't take off until the 1970s, when it became a hip bohemian area designated a 'grey zone' by the apartheid government, meaning it was inhabited by black and white homes. There were jazz clubs and bookshops, arts and crafts outlets and cool clothes shops, as well as drugs and crime on its main thoroughfare, Rockey Street. After the end of Apartheid the demographic shifted from 85% white to 90% black within a decade, while urban maintenance disappeared.

One of the few pictures I managed to grab before the security guards arrived
As we walk into the busy Main Street area around the Yeoville market, it is clear that today's Yeoville is a very different place. Street traders sell anything from water to sweets to airtime to fruit. It is not so busy, but we are certainly an unusual attraction. The market is fantastic, more Nairobi than Rosebank: rows of fruit and veg stalls, clothes stalls selling bright chichenji fabrics, tables spread with soap and makeup. Under cover in the central alleyway of the market an old woman sits on a stool amidst the equipment required to roast peanuts. She swirls the hot steaming peanuts in a large plastic bowl, sprinkles them with salt and carefully tips them into small R3 plastic bags. The peanuts are tiny and delicious. I buy nectarines and grapes and plums, ripe and juicy. I want to stock up on aubergines, tiny peppers, plantains, sweet potatoes, but I hold back since I have to carry everything. Security guards are everywhere, warning us not to take photos. It is disappointing, as most traders don't seem to care, but reassuring that someone is looking out for calm and peace.

Desire, one of the Dlala Nje artists, at Yeoville pool
We trundle our way along the main road, discovering one unlikely place after another: on the corner of Raleigh and Kenmere is the entrance to the Yeoville swimming pool, filled with kids gleefully jumping in the cool waters. Glorious 1930s flats line the street, with stylish balconies and cool fonts spelling out the name of the block. We are almost in Hillbrow now. Berea, Hillbrow and Yeoville all merge together into one of the densely populated areas of Africa, and it shows. The streets are heaving with people now in the afternoon, and the bars are filled with early starting drinkers.

Stylish local architecture, cool fonts
Wandering the 'bad' parts of town has been an eye-opener. As always, when I discover yet another 'no-go zone' that turns out to be not so no-go after all, I realise: I love you, Jozi!

More photos here:

fiverlocker's items tagged with Yeoville More of fiverlocker's stuff tagged with Yeoville

09 February 2013

This day in history: Photowalks

Photowalker at the wishing tree
This is going to be a new series of post. Why? Because I have not blogged when things happened, so now I write about them in hindsight. That way I don't feel that I am so very very late with my writings, and I can still talk about the events I want to talk about... 

Cinema becomes church - suspension of disbelief continues
I can see that a year ago this month I went on my first and second photo walk. For those not in the know, the photowalkers are a Johannesburg group (do they exist anywhere else? I have never noticed them before, but who knows...) of amateur and pro photographers who walk the streets of Joburg and its surrounds in search of a good shot. The group has been going since 2009 and was founded by Mark Straw, who seems to have an indefatigable enthusiasm for devising new and interesting places to visit. 

Giving out New Year's good luck charms

Chinese New Year

My first event was the Chinese New Year celebrations in Bronkhorstspruit at the Nan Hua Temple. Heather, who first mentioned the whole photowalker concept to me, assured me that everyone would be friendly, and that she would introduce me. As it turned out we never even met any photo walkers, although they were surely there, because the temple was crowded with visitors.

All kinds of food for sale
The centre square of the temple was used for dragon puppetry, fireworks and general celebration, while the walkway around the square was crammed with stalls selling everything from massages to orchids, swords to dumplings. The temple itself was a quiet centre of the proceedings, where we could sit and take things in. 
Just outside the front entrance was a wishing tree festooned with ribbons where people left their wishes for the new year. Photo opportunities abounded. Even though we didn't meet the photo walkers, we came away with a haul of good pictures.

Art Deco Photowalk

The splendid Benoni Springs Fire Station (thanks, Anonymous)
It was on the next photowalk where I really got into the whole thing. Meeting in the morning at a mall in East Joburg, about twenty people divided up into cars for the ride out to Springs for the first part of an architectural tour of Joburg's satellite towns. 

Photowalker in action
A local architect showed us the art deco treasures of Springs: the town hall, local schools and private houses, and on the main street a cinema turned church as well as rows of shops and warehouses - all sporting fabulous Art Deco styling. 

Glorious Art Deco in Benoni
We ended up at a locally famous ice cream parlour where we got to go into the inner sanctum, where the delicious ice cream was made. The rest of the day was spent at Benoni where a splendidly designed fire station kept us occupied for quite a while. 

I spend a lot of time walking around cities (and the countryside) photographing what I see. I guess that makes me an urban photographer. The difference between going for a walk on my own and a photowalk is like night and day: In a group there is the challenge to catch that shot that no-one else did, find an angle that no-one else has. 

But it's not just competition. In a new place I am always fascinated when I see someone else take a picture. I creep up behind them and try to work out if they have discovered an interesting subject, what it is they are looking at. On a photowalk that is multiplied, because we all stand behind each other looking at the others' shots, wondering if we can capture something worthwhile, but different. It's a constant pushing and intensifying, scrutinising and questioning of the current view point. What else is there? How else can I capture this? What am I missing?

Want to go photowalking?

Blast from the past - analog photos
A Pentax K1000 in the wild
Photowalkers also use a wide range of cameras. There are the standard digital SLRs equipped with a range of lenses from fish eye to telephoto, but there is also the iPhone, the Helga, the old-school Pentax K-1000 with an external view finder. There is a refreshing lack of snobbishness around equipment, a mutual interest in each other's choices.

Best thing about photowalking? Going to places I either didn't know existed, or wouldn't have been brave enough to visit by myself. Joburg photowalkers are on Meetup, and as it turns out so are a bunch of other photowalking groups, so there is no excuse not to get involved.

More photos here: 

2012 Chinese New Year

fiverlocker's 2012 Chinese New Year photoset fiverlocker's 2012 Chinese New Year photoset

Art Deco Photowalk

fiverlocker's Art Deco Photowalk photoset fiverlocker's Art Deco Photowalk photoset

08 February 2013

07 February 2013

Exhibition opening: Michael Meyersfeld - DISCORDANCE

The location: the ultra-modernist University Of Johannesburg Art Gallery: grass roof, geometric landscaping, white-washed concrete walls.

The audience: students, hipsters, queers, connoisseurs. Many many cool people, sipping wine, peering knowingly at exhibits, brows furrowed.

The photos were sub-Helmut Newton: naked long-legged models draped in varying misogynist poses as well as some sledgehammer poetry (not sure it was his), read out by a poetry slammer with a sound effect band - breaking sticks and ripping paper...) and a failing Powerpoint slideshow.

There were some gems: an old black man in a lake, his head just about emerging from the water like Adam from the womb; an old white man, lying naked on his bed, freckled all over his translucent skin, human body shape barely recognisable, warped from age and religion; a fat lady primly seated on a bench inside the Johannesburg Art Gallery courtyard, encased in wire - safe, serene, unselfconscious.
My highlight was a series of large colour photos of knocked-over traffic lights around the streets of Johannesburg, the red orange green still flashing obediently amidst a tangle of warped steel and knotted electrical cables. There, finally, was a subtle statement on urban South Africa circa 2013.