SUNDAY TIMES - This East Rand town has almost as many art deco buildings as Miami
Sunday Times Decor By Ufrieda Ho, 2017-04-09 00:00:00.0

This East Rand town has almost as many art deco buildings as Miami

Springs' art deco buildings are ideal for a walking tour because they're contained in a relatively small walking distance from each other.
Image: Supplied

New York has the Chrysler Building and London has the Battersea Power Station, but art deco buildings are what makes Springs an architectural tourism destination, writes Ufrieda Ho

Had Time's clock ticked differently it could have been Springs that got the gold and later the big city sparkle. Joburg would have been the backwater, tagged provincial and beige.

The story goes: back in the day the area that would eventually become Springs was a new coal mining hot spot. It also had a gold seam thick and proper waiting to be discovered. However, when Ignatius Ferreira's pickaxe connected with the shiny metal in October of 1886 on a farm called Langlaagte, 50 kilometres away in mining camps that would become Johannesburg, it changed the course of history. Since then Springs (named for its underground water sources) has played catch-up with its glossier cousin.

But Time's strange ways have left Springs with a unique gift: an intact collection of small-scale art deco buildings said to be the second largest grouping of its kind outside of Miami. This enduring imprint and imagination in concrete now holds an opportunity for Springs to reinvent itself as an architectural tourism destination.

Architectural tourism and interest in art deco can be a money-spinner. It's why tourists flock to see New York's Chrysler Building and are seduced by visual dazzle in the detailing of the Rockefeller Center. In Miami, it's the Carlyle building on Ocean Drive, said to be one of the most photographed buildings and most used movie backdrops. In London, it's the flying saucer-like Southgate tube station, the Battersea Power Station and the Carreras Cigarette Factory in Camden that make art deco fans dizzy.

Springs' art deco buildings went up between 1930 and 1939 - the glory period of growth for the town that, according to the Ekurhuleni Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture, was also when Springs was the sixth biggest town in the country. Small shop and building owners were flush with money. The buildings they commissioned were statements of exuberance and excess that came with the decision in 1932 for South Africa to abandon the gold standard. As gold prices shot up, more money flowed and economic expansion followed.

In the post-World War II years, though, money dried up and decades later Springs gradually faded into industrial obscurity. With less money around, fewer buildings were being torn down to be rebuilt. This inadvertently became the lifeline for Springs' art deco buildings.

Architect Jeffrey Cole believes architectural tourism is a boost for heritage and history. Cole grew up on the East Rand; his love for this eastern hem of Gauteng has endured. His firm, Messaris Wapenaar Cole Architects, is in Sandton but he chooses to live in Benoni, deliberately stretching the radius between home and the conventional urban centre of Gauteng.

The art deco buildings dotted along the East Rand from Boksburg, Benoni and into Springs he's known all his life. Now as a professional architect he can see their value in convincing people to venture a little further along the N12 and to do more exploring in their back yards.

"There could be a walking map or app for an art deco route from Benoni, Boksburg and Springs. I'm sure there would be an interest for regular guided walks too," says Cole, who's been roped in in the past to play tour guide to hobbyist groups like the Joburg Photowalkers and other art deco and heritage enthusiasts.

Architect Jeffrey Cole. Image: Alon Skuy

On a late summer afternoon Cole is on a walkabout with Sunday Times LS. He takes long strides, his head stays tilted upwards. He's looking for flagpoles on buildings; these are mimics of the metal staff on the Empire State Building that would have been a docking station for zeppelins in an engineer's imagination. He's also spotting geometric embellishments, Egyptian-inspired motifs and fonts like "Ritzy Normal" in building names - all markers of the architectural movement that got its start in Paris in the mid-1920s and eventually spread to Springs by the 1930s.

Art deco was an architectural renaissance, a statement in concrete about life and possibility after war. After the devastation of World War I, there was a mood to rejoice in everything alive, new, forward-looking. Art deco's distinct features were an ode to technology and modernity of the late 1920s and the 1930s. It took its cues from socio-cultural fascination of the time - think The Great Gatsby and all things Egyptian after Howard Carter open Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922.

Cole's hands trace the curves of buildings, he follows the horizontal lines wrapping around buildings that create the illusion of movement and his eye darts to fan-shaped embellishments hidden behind cladding, sheeting and years of neglect.

"I read buildings like a book," he says, distinguishing between moderne and art deco in an instant and picking up hidden details passers-by might miss. And like a bibliophile aching to share a good book, Cole is eager to communicate his love for the heritage and history marked in concrete and steel. The use of concrete and steel themselves tell of the embrace for pushing the architectural and engineering limits of new building materials.

"Art deco was a shift from the conventional, a love affair with new technology, with machines like big ships and cars and industry. It is why you'll see porthole windows or something that looks like an aeroplane wing," says Cole.

Among his favourites is the Springs Hotel, with its curved façade looking out onto the train station. The local fire station is another. Its porthole windows and fine details, like a recessed space for a door mat, delight his architect's heart.

"Art deco buildings are everywhere in Springs, you just have to start walking."

Feet on the pavements could change the fortunes of the buildings that Cole admits need some TLC. Importantly, it could also be a boost for the CBD that is grottier and more rundown than it should be.

"I don't believe it needs to be restored to the point of being contrived, that's not what you want. But it can be restored and protected so that you don't lose the heritage by allowing it to crumble," he says.

Brett McDougall, chairman of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF), says art deco buildings are clues to the history of Joburg and the East Rand in the 1930s - it's what makes them precious.

"It's the story of prosperity and confidence in the future at the time. It's also a story about what migrant communities were building in Johannesburg and the East Rand.

"Springs really has the potential to turn its art deco heritage into something that can draw people to the town." Image: Alon Skuy

At their tallest, Springs building are only about five or six storeys high. Image: Alon Skuy

"Springs' art deco buildings are ideal for a walking tour because they're contained in a relatively small walking distance from each other; most of the buildings are still in reasonably good condition and at their tallest are only about five or six storeys high, which give you a different sense of intimacy and scale if you're experiencing them on a walking tour," says McDougall.

"Springs really has the potential to turn its art deco heritage into something that can draw people to the town."

There's nostalgia and old affection for a place like Springs. Former resident Alaster Taylor went so far as to set up the "Ive lived in Springs" Facebook page in 2007. He left out the apostrophe deliberately because he says people he meets "think no English-speaking people ever visit Springs".

He set up the page to connect with his friends but it now has over 6,000 members, sharing memories and photos.

"I was born in Springs and lived there till I was about five, then my family came back when I was 12. I remember going to my grandparents' school uniform shop, Lilienfeld Outfitters, after school. They had the shop for 30 years before it was closed in 1999.

"I particularly enjoyed going to Devil's Inn for lunch. It's still open and people from all over the East Rand love going there for the amazing food," says Taylor.

Art deco was an architectural renaissance, a statement in concrete about life and possibility after war. Image: Alon Skuy

Taylor is now living in Barcelona and previously lived in Shanghai for 13 years. It's made him value things that last a little longer.

"In China I see buildings go up and come down numerous times. One day I would see a hotel, the next it's an apartment building. I'm glad the art deco buildings in Springs have stood so long and I hope they last longer and bring more architectural interest in Springs.

"Springs is where I started off, I'm proud of that. Springs is a small town but it has a heart of gold," he says.

The art deco may be the long overdue sprinkle of glitter for a little town that was robbed of its gold glory 131 years ago.