Ponte Tower has come to define Johannesburg’s skyline, its centrality and truly iconic proportions pulling at the edges of reality, allowing one to see and understand the city like never before. Nestled in Hillbrow, one of the densest urban areas in South Africa, its walls have witnessed great triumph and tragedy since emerging in the mid-1970s, ushering the city’s sky-high dreams and darkest horrors – echoing a sad past, but a resilient future.
Originally, a beacon of wealth and aspiration, Ponte City, as it was first named in 1976, was designed to be a city in itself, with 500 lavish apartments above, and retail spaces below designed to cradle the infinite abyss within Ponte’s hollow core. Three-storey penthouses crowned the circular tower, with sweeping views across the CBD. Even whisperings of an indoor ski slope circulated, but before the final licks of paint were applied to Ponte’s top floors, the city was unravelling – the smoke from protests like the Soweto Uprising was lingering.
“Nestled in Hillbrow, one of the densest urban areas in South Africa, its walls have witnessed great triumph and tragedy since emerging in the mid-1970s, ushering the city’s sky-high dreams and darkest horrors – echoing a sad past, but a resilient future.”
The city’s invisible citizens were beginning to seek shelter in Ponte’s anonymity, a place where whatever happened in Ponte, stayed in Ponte. By the time apartheid was dismantled in 1990’s, the tower’s affluent white residents had moved out, and Ponte was filling up with streams of immigrants, refugees and rural migrants taking their first steps into ‘urban’ South Africa. Its overwhelmingly cosmopolitan surrounds functioned as a close-knit community with its own ‘analogue Gumtree’ propped up on the tower’s wall advertising spare beds, jobs and everything in-between. However, it wasn’t long before Ponte reached the lowest depths of degradation, housing over 10,000 people and over 15-storeys of rubbish in its inner core. It became known as Johannesburg’s underworld and ‘the grandest vertical slum’, a consequence of years of apartheid and global inequality.
After years of isolation and two failed gentrification attempts – one due to bad timing, the other to the global financial crisis – Ponte has emerged into a clearer, more inclusive vision of itself. Lovingly nurtured back to life in 2009, it remains a reminder that a place can grow beyond its architecture.
Ponte continues to serve as a symbol of contemporary South Africa, perched proudly on a hill looking over its people with a red Vodacom haze atop its crown. Change is at work, but it’s a subtle regeneration, aimed not at driving its community out but rather nurturing its growth and future. Various social initiatives like Dlala Nje, set up at the base of Ponte, aim to provide a safe, diverse and engaging environment for the children of Hillbrow. There is no denying that Ponte has a long way to go, still one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in South Africa, but it continues to persevere, providing an affordable and clean space for its residents to forge a new life: a place of flow, of entry and of exit, of hope and opportunity. True to its historic roots, Hillbrow, with Ponte as its centrepiece, remains a ‘liberated zone’ for society’s ‘misfits’ – a place where gays (1970s), coloureds (1980s) and immigrants (1990s+) could hope for a better future in Africa’s city of dreams.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Shenaz Engineer is a Researcher & Strategist at Right Angle Studio. A Brisbane local, her innate curiosity and fascination for cities has seen her live across Amsterdam, Shanghai, New York, Paris and now Sydney. With a background in both business and design, she continues to collaborate with curious minds from different industries across the world, and has received both national and international awards for her work. Fascinated by the intersection of culture, architecture, health and technology, she is passionate about creating inclusive cities and crafting places for people.
All photography by Jono Wood.