I often pondered the state of Joburg’s built landscape with the late architect and historian Clive Chipkin. While lamenting the plague of shapeless, context-ignoring, motorcar-centric buildings encroaching on Rosebank — a once-pleasant shopping spot — Clive joked that Oxford Road should be renamed “Joburg’s Street of Architectural Shame”. He wasn’t wrong. Carefully designed structures such as the Louis Kahn-inspired Rosebank Hyatt Regency, a former landmark on the strip, have been overshadowed by new developments of decidedly less merit.
Unfortunate architecture is nothing new, but it’s easy to romanticise the past and gloss over architectural faux pas when casting a historical gaze. Scores of unexceptional, even offensive structures from Joburg’s 13 decades litter the city. The old Johannesburg General, now Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, is a permanent scar on the Parktown Ridge. But, like broken robots, potholes, and now water shifting, Joburgers have learnt to avert their gaze from concrete carbuncles and rather focus on the surrounding moments of beauty. We just need to remember where to look.
The distinctive onion dome crowning Dolobran mansion — an enduring icon of old Joburg — nestles among enormous jacaranda trees at the top end of Oxford Road. The house, dreamed up by architect James Cope Christie in 1905, borrows architectural cues from exotic destinations visited by its original owner, financier Charles Llewellyn Andersson. Andersson passed up a demure design by renowned British architect Sir Herbert Baker in favour of Christie’s more playful creation. Parktown has no shortage of stellar Baker buildings and much of his best work is concentrated here. Baker’s own home, Stone House, constructed from locally quarried koppie stone, exudes a quiet dignity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the traditional designs of stately homes such as Glenshiel, Northwards, and Villa Arcadia, also penned by Baker, lent Parktown and Westcliff — then brand-new suburbs in an upstart mining town — a sense of permanence and respectability. Between the first and second world wars, a new crop of architects inspired by modern ideals, socialist dogma, and l’esprit nouveau were eager to reshape the city’s landscape. Rex Martienssen, probably the most notable disciple, believed that modern architecture grew from the rich heritage of the past, a belief shared by Le Corbusier, a father of the movement in Europe.
Crisp, linear, white boxes, “machines for living”, soon appeared in new suburbs such as Houghton, Greenside, and Northcliff. Architect Harold Le Roith designed a striking home in the International Style for his family in Sandhurst. The structure seemed to hover above the landscape, suspended on pilotis in a manner reminiscent of Paris’s Villa Savoy. Fleeting views of Martienssen’s own home, a case study in considered composition, inject instant joy into any journey along Greenside’s Cruden Bay Road. In correspondence with Martienssen, Le Cor-busier was impressed by the quality of the “new architecture” on the highveld. Lofty praise for a city barely 50 years old.
Artist Edoardo Villa commissioned Ian McLennan to create a home for him in Kew, on the city’s outskirts, in 1968. The building’s sinuous volumes and careful use of natural materials, textures, and sunlight blur the boundaries between the functional requirements of architecture and the spiritual qualities of art.
Downtown, structures such as the Ansteys Building, Astor Mansions, 44 Main Street, the Carlton Hotel, and the Rand Club still bear testament to the former lustre of a once golden city.
Newer areas seem to lack authentic urban quality or architectural interest. But moments of inspiration do exist. Designed in the early 1980s by Margoles Dukes and Smith Architects, the Sandton Sun is probably the best example of an internal-atrium building in SA, complete with glitzy glass-fronted lifts and marble waterfall. From a safe distance, poorly considered follies such as 15 Alice Lane and the inexplicably named The Leonardo and Michelangelo Towers lend the skyline a sense of elevated drama and gaudy excitement. Even in Rosebank, BP’s new office acknowledges the street edge and pedestrian-centric nature of the area, with active ground-level restaurants, shops, and urban greenery. Circa Gallery is another standout, forming a carefully crafted bastion of good design.
Sure, Joburg has more than its share of abominable design, and lately the city seems to be disintegrating in real time, but there’s still such allure, sometimes hidden below the surface. Lester Burnham says it best in the Sam Mendes classic, American Beauty: “It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst... You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry... you will someday.”
• From the 2023/2024 edition of Wanted Watches, Jewellery and Luxury.