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Joburg's urban landmarks don't just tell us where we are, but who we are

From its skyline to its street-level art, there's a story in every view of Johannesburg - even if it keeps changing

23 September 2018 - 00:00 By Ufrieda Ho

As middle fingers go, a giant concrete block erected on the Parktown ridge is a pretty big up-yours. It was the Nats' political statement in architecture in 1978 to the progressives who lived below the ridge. Disrupting a horizon of jacarandas and polite loveliness with the grey monotony of Johannesburg General Hospital (now Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital) was a deliberate irritation.
"There was an outcry at the time at the Nats' choice of building the hospital on such a prominent site - it was a way of saying they had the power even if Harry Oppenheimer, who was a progressive member of parliament at the time and lived below the ridge, may have had the money," says Flo Bird, founding member of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.
Joburg is no stranger to big statements and scent-marking the landscape. Bird says the constant flux, the appetite for tearing down to re-imagine the new, and even the haphazard and sometimes jarring juxtaposition of buildings and structures, also define Joburg. This is our visual heritage, an identity in layers and an orientation of not just where we are, but maybe also who we are.
"When I'm driving back to Joburg and I see Ponte, I know I'm about half an hour from home. People hated the lit-up signs on top of Ponte when they first went up, but now they look for the lights on the horizons. It's the same when people used to say that the moment they saw the mine dumps, flying into OR Tambo airport, they knew they were back in their city. The mine dumps are disappearing now; and we know they are dusty, dirty and toxic, but they make us feel at home; they're also part of us," says Bird.
At the same time, the city we think we know so well keeps changing. There's a constant tug of war, competing agendas, with the rise and fall of money, class and culture and even the imbalance of green spaces and densified living spaces. Inevitably, this creates no-go zones, members-only clubs, hyper-surveillance of public spaces and pavements blocked from use with boulders, thorny plants and even sprinklers. All of it indicating a code of exclusion and inclusion.
In the financial engine room of Sandton, new monoliths of mirrored buildings keep changing the landscape. Some see the rising hulks as structures of indifference and disregard - showy and pretentious in their statements of wealth and corporate power. As they dwarf the landscape they become alienating, impersonal and separated from their neighbours. For others, these buildings represent full-gloss aspiration, the actual glitter of the city of gold. And when the sun goes down, they redefine the nightscape in megawatts - they're indulgent, but they also have the wow factor.
Says Bird: "Buildings become part of enduring heritage when they can stand the test of time and when they demonstrate openness to people and fit in to their immediate environment."
Brendan Hart, co-owner of Mayat Hart Architects and Heritage Consultants, says caring about a space can evolve into a sense of collective heritage and ownership. Hitting that sweet spot is about personal experience.
"When people run a race across Nelson Mandela Bridge, or go to a concert at Mary Fitzgerald Square, they have an experience of the space. A familiarity is established," says Hart.
Familiarity extends individual comfort zones, it helps balance perceptions with reality about crime and grime and also, at the opposite end, about gentrification and elitism.
For Hart, Joburg's newer enclaves of development - from Victoria Yards to Maboneng and Braamfontein, and even the remarkable revival of The Wilds - create new entry points, a kind of softer landing for people who have written off parts of the city. They can also recast nearby forgotten spaces and buildings in a new light. As these get more attention they stand a better chance of being preserved as heritage.
"When people occupy spaces it feels like their space, but when our walls keep going up higher and higher we break the visual connection we have even to the streets just outside our homes. We think we're safe but actually we're more isolated," says Hart.
Some shifts to deepening our appreciation of architecture and urban environment as collective heritage can be small and personal. Choosing to engage, choosing to step outside of our fear, are starting points.
Artist Stephen Hobbs, co-director of the Trinity Sessions, also speaks of the power of small-scale change. For years he's worked with the Johannesburg Development Agency to use ideas of "place-making" to transform the city. Place-making is about human-centred approaches to transformation.
Public art with a nod to history and heritage has been one of his key tools. It's art interpreted to reflect what matters to a community.
"Some of our projects haven't been about the grand or the iconic of the city, and some have had quite a short lifespan. But they are mostly about storytelling and reflecting and celebrating what matters to each individual community we work with," says Hobbs.
His company has been behind the #ArtmyJozi campaign that has focused on the human interface of the new ReaVaya bus corridors in the city.
Hobbs sees art and place-making that's guided by communities as complementary to the actual infrastructure of community halls, libraries and road upgrades and parks.
Clive van den Berg's Eland sculpture marks the watershed that gives the Witwatersrand its name. The Yeoville water tower, part rocket ship, part relic, is still in use today, pumping water to the suburb. Americo Guambe's sculptures of wooden heads in Newtown this year received a welcome repair and lick of varnish. Some of the heads have been given a dimension of street cred, courtesy of fabric street artist FoodBabySoul (FBS).
These are the street-level markers of the city, the urban landmarks that are the zoomed-in version of our instantly recognisable skyline. They fall into disrepair, get appropriated, get vandalised, but they survive and sometimes they rise again. They reflect the story of us, the story of a city of crime, grime and glory and also of hate and heart, all in a single breath...

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