Standing at Ponte, waiting for the tour to begin, tourists had their cameras at the ready, eager to take photographs of the round building that was once arguably Johannesburg’s most notorious space, tossed aside like a discarded mistress. Not any more – it has been renovated and revitalised. No longer a haven for drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes and others who trawl the underbelly of society, Ponte is showing signs of promise and growth.
Ponte is the tallest residential building in Johannesburg, and is architecturally significant. It is cylindrical in shape, with an unusual hollow inner core, and is one of the city’s most striking urban landmarks. It was designed by architect Rodney Grosskopff, who also designed other landmarks such as the Johannesburg Theatre Complex, and was completed in 1975. The building is finished with a rough, grey concrete look, called hacked concrete, and is in a style referred to as New Brutalism. In its prime, Ponte City was one of Joburg’s most sought-after addresses.
Lupak, the guide and co-owner of Dlala Nje, says this space is where the magic happens. “Unfortunately Hillbrow and Ponte still suffer a barrage of negative publicity. There is still a lot of angst and animosity and people are told to steer clear or they will be robbed, hijacked or worse. We just want to change the perception of this building in the eyes of the rest of Joburg.”
In the 1970s, while the black youth were fighting for a right to education, Ponte City was housing the elite. The six penthouses came fitted with wine cellars, saunas, patio braai areas and roof decks. Under the Group Areas Act, Hillbrow was a white area, and only white people were legally allowed to stay at Ponte City, although the region itself was a grey area, so-called because the act was less strictly enforced here by the apartheid government.
The building’s black staff were the only people legally allowed to live in Ponte. But they lived on the very top floors – the highest point in the city – with tiny windows out of which it was impossible to see. “We had some mad by-laws in those days,” says Grosskopff. “The [window] sills had to be above six foot [1.8m] so that they [the black staff] couldn’t look out at the white apartments.”
Ponte City was built with convenience and accessibility in mind. The ground floor housed shops, hairdressers, a bowling alley, and a concert venue, and whatever was not available in the building was just a short drive away. And for a while it was a popular place to live. But in the early 1980s investment in the suburb dried up and maintenance stopped. This led to an exodus of middle class residents and the decay of major buildings. By the 1990s, the whole of Hillbrow was a slum.
Just before the transition to democracy, as the apartheid laws were revoked, the suburb became home to many young black South Africans, who were entering the city after a lifetime restricted to the surrounding townships. Hitting rock bottom, these once grey areas were now populated by migrants earning minimum wage, or no wage at all. The buildings were hijacked and severely dilapidated; they were breeding grounds for crime and grime. Gangs controlled streets, buildings, drugs and prostitutes.