Johannesburg – Global Architectural Trends Laboratory

Henning Rasmuss – architect.

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Johannesburg was not born, as other cities are. It was invented overnight when gold was discovered in the shallow sedimentary layers of the edge of a prehistoric lake, now forming the ridge of the Witwatersrand. It is young at 119 years, and its architecture is a particular mirror of its soul. Some would argue that Johannesburg does not have a soul, that it is placeless, featureless, hard, unforgiving. But I passionately believe that each city has a spirit or soul that defines its people, and by extension their architecture, to a remarkable degree. Anyone who has been to Venice or New York will agree that architecture is indivisible from the spirit of a place. What then is this spirit of Johannesburg, and what of it remains as a residue in its architecture? And how is architecture as part of a global value system perpetuated in this city?
In its hectic rush to invent itself out of a stretch of African veld, Johannesburg has never paused long enough to consolidate into a coherent whole. Historical records show that every piece of land in the inner city has carried more than four different buildings in the short history of the city. There seems to be no city in the world that is in such a hurry to wipe out the traces of its past. Johannesburg was formed out of pure chance, out of opportunism and capitalist greed, out of desperate hope and violent exploitation. It simply appeared, and has been consuming buildings ever since, reinventing its image and adding to the junk pile of discarded styles again and again. What we are left with is a field of architectural fragments, debris left behind by this headlong rush forward into the future.
Johannesburg has never taken its architecture very seriously, but it also refuses to be dismissed. It has built its own type of urban landscape, and its buildings do tell a story.
Johannesburg has seen it all, given space to all the ‘isms’of pre-modern, modern and post-modern architecture, even if it has at times diluted their purity and added its own spice. The fragments that remain from its short history are not so much pieces of Johannesburg, but pieces of the cities it has had relationships with over time. The diverse architecture of Johannesburg echoes with parts of London, Amsterdam, Berlin, New York, Brasilia and, these days, Tuscany or other exotic locations.
One can argue that Johannesburg has always been a global and globalised city. Its driving force is the reproduction of capital, and the fortunes of the city have been tied to the story of gold for most of its short existence. Anywhere in the world, architecture is primarily commissioned by and for a powerful elite; the landscape of Johannesburg is a fascinating mirror of the ability of global capital to shape its own physical context.
The first buildings erected in the Johannesburg, rising above the dusty streets of the gold rush town, were industrially made pre-assembled Victorian buildings of two to three stories height. Cast in the foundries of Scotland, they were shipped to the Cape and sent by ox wagon to this new invented city. Brickyards were established and simple functional brick buildings had decorative Edwardian facades, French mansard roof elements, classical columns and fragile Victorian verandah structures attached. From its earliest days, Johannesburg’s architecture was a free-for-all of styles and cultural references. Its first architectures are not so much the result of the imports of colonialism, but rather of the opportunist way of producing buildings to serve the needs of business and the powerful mining industry.
Johannesburg has always purchased foreign technology for the construction of its architecture. There was never time, one can be made to believe, to develop a locally derived building culture. Based on the available investment capital and the latest mining technology from the diamond fields of Kimberley, Johannesburg exploded into existence with an unusually high level of sophistication and foreign content in its building culture. It quickly grew up into a city that could afford respectable architecture to represent the institutions of power. Both classicist and modernist architects left their mark on the city.
The very process of construction, then, has been shaped by global technology. There are many buildings that illustrate this continuing way of making, perhaps most notably, and visibly, the Carlton Centre. It was designed by the US skyscraper kings, SOM, in the late 1960’s and to this day is the highest office tower in the world built as a pure concrete structure.
The Standard Bank head office, designed by German architects HPP, is one of only two buildings built with a central slip-cast shaft with the floors suspended from the top down. These are finely detailed buildings, created at the end of the golden era of gold and before the first global energy crisis. South Africa enjoyed real prosperity for its powerful elite on the back of a well-oiled apartheid machine, and the city’s architecture was of the best the world could offer.
Capital and its reproduction are inextricably linked to the device and operation of fashion. Fashion and architecture are, for better or worse, very good friends. In a figurative sense, the streets of Johannesburg have been paved with gold, and the consumer culture of the city has always been fashion-driven. Johannesburg is a city of instant wealth, of big deals, of insane development energy, of conspicuous consumption. There is no architectural style that has bypassed the fashion-conscious clients of Johannesburg. From Edwardian to Victorian, from Classical to Neo-classical and back again, from Modern to Post-modern and beyond, from Cape Dutch to British Brutal, from Fascist to free-form, from Fifties Elegant to Seventies Drab, from Art Deco to High Tech: every single imaginable thing has been attempted at least once, sometimes brilliantly executed.
The prime examples are perhaps Helmut Jahn’s diamond-shaped building for global diamond corporation deBeers, or the Brazilian-inspired excesses of the Top Star drive-in cinema gateway. Everything has been absorbed, replicated, reproduced. What we have, at the end of this short and intensive history of building, is an open-air museum of the best and worst the 20th century has had to offer.
We can continue into the future with this same energy, this same attitude of consumption of styles. Johannesburg will remain a wealthy city in the African context, and it will continue to be a testing ground for global imports. The new political order after 1994 has brought very little critical introspection to the architects of Johannesburg. One can argue that the worst excesses of globalised architectural production have been forced upon us in the form of overtly themed architecture. The wave of casino and shopping mall construction after 1994 has certainly added some clear and unapologetic examples of cultural imports into the landscape. The so-called ‘Montecasino’complex perhaps best exemplifies how little discretion is applied to the cultural dimension of architecture in the so-called ‘New South Africa’. Architects and cultural commentators can argue the merits or demerits of what is being produced and placed into the landscape of our cities: the fact is that the broad mass of consumers finds this type of architecture very attractive and desirable.
But why is this type of escapist architecture happening here and now? One can argue that it is true to the spirit of Johannesburg and that it represents just another import in a long line of similar experiments. One could equally argue that the predominantly Tuscan-themed architecture is part of a cultural shock reaction to, or against, the new African reality of our cities. Whatever the deeper dimensions of thought that bring about this architecture, there is a continuing history of Johannesburg architecture wanting to be ‘like somewhere else’. If we were to agree that references to Tuscan hilltop villages are particularly suspect given our current cultural and political development, is the recreation of Paris or Barcelona boulevards any less suspect? The recent Melrose Arch development is, in a sense, just as fake as Montecasino, even if it quotes and emulates a more contemporary European aesthetic. As Montecasino pretends to be a rural Italian hill town, so Melrose Arch pretends to be a High Street in Europe, faking a city structure and a city life that has never existed in Johannesburg.
One can sketch a background of global influences, and of architecture as an outlet for the need for capital to reproduce; one can talk of the desire for fashion and the power of built-in obsolescence in architecture commissioned by newly-wealthy individuals in a young and confident city. Johannesburg has lived through all of that. One can argue that it has always been part of a global system of producing and reproducing architecture. All of that is true. But the challenge of the global world system as it has been constructed around us poses a different challenge: it forces each one of us, architects included, to play an active part in perpetuating this system or in resisting it.
Globalism is a pervasive force for sameness, for the end of difference. Globalism is about standardization, about elevating the lowest common cultural denominator as an absolute standard. Globalism is about faking consensus, and about constructing facades to make this consensus appear real. Globalism is about restricting choices and about pre-packaging desires.
How do we as a profession and as a society move towards a more critical type of architectural practice in this city? Johannesburg is a particularly difficult place to develop the necessary critical stance, given its history. We are living and practicing as architects in an environment with a particular historical imperative. For the first time, in a post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa, we are free to align ourselves with the African landscape as a resource for our work. We are free to add to the diversity that is Johannesburg, and to resist the sameness of globalism by mixing another flavour into the mix of styles that are around us.
Is it time for a ‘renaissance’of African architecture? Difficult to argue: can there be a renaissance of something that has never existed in the Western sense of architecture as a continuum of built work? What does an African office block look like? Without resorting to kitsch or to more Disney-like theming, now of an African persuasion, is there a way forward that will stand up the scrutiny of future generations? I believe that we need to act out an inclusive agenda that adds another veneer of difference and depth to the kaleidoscopic architecture of this city. We are free to add the best of the moment, designed with care and respect for people, and with love for the landscape, into Johannesburg. We are free to be less partisan; we are free to be more inclusive. We are free to go out and seek knowledge of African precedent in building and place-making, and to apply this to new projects.
It is a utopian project in a city like Johannesburg. But there are pointers along the way.
The new Constitutional Court building by OMM Design Workshop and Urban Solutions Architects is such a pointer. Hugely but healthily eclectic, impressive rather than imposing, generous rather than monumental, it could become a yardstick for a new kind of African regional architecture.
What is the best we can hope for? An architecture that does not turn its back on the world out there, that reflects our awareness of global architectural production, but celebrates the local. An architecture that is optimistic, clear, honest in its use of materials, and suited for its purpose. From the institutional to the commercial, Johannesburg will remain a testing ground for the best the world has to offer.
It will not, and should not, develop an African architecture to the exclusion of other influences. In a globalised world, that is impossible and also unnecessary. We need to resist sameness and partisan agendas of any kind, including the exclusive search for what is an ‘African’architecture. Johannesburg has always been about the confidence to take on the world and to make the best out of what the world has to offer. We should not forget this tradition now, in a world moving towards sameness and fake consensus.

///Article N° : 5744

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