Ponte: tower of dreams

Ponte: tower of dreams

In 1975, the Ponte tower in Johannesburg’s Berea was sparkling and new and highly desirable.

Its 464 apartments were 90% let, including the one- and two-bedroomed luxury flats on floors 41-46; the luxury three-bedroomed flats on floors 47-50; and  the ultra-luxury four-bedroomed triplex flats on floors 51 to 54, which comprised saunas, two bedrooms-en-suite, a study, lounges (conversation spaces, they were called at the time) and a barbeque roof garden area.

Its ground floor was home to “Nucleus”, an upmarket shopping centre that acted as a place to spend money, to relax, to be entertained, to see-and-be-seen, and of course, to pick up groceries on the way back from one’s lunch date, assuming that this wasn’t a chore for the live-in maid. And the recreational side of life wasn’t forgotten: the block included a children’s playground, two floodlit tennis courts, and an adults’ and a children’s swimming pool completed what was thought of as a “village concept” at the time.

With the capacity for 1500 to 2000 people, the building soon became known as Ponte City.

A cylindrical building

When it was built, Ponte was noteworthy not only because of its size and engineering but also because of its design and shape: it was cylindrical with a hollow core, turning it into a tube-like structure when viewed from above.

The architects – Mannie Feldman with Manfred Hermer and Rodney Grosskopff – opted for a cylindrical building because of thanks to the relatively small and strangely shaped space available for the building. A circular design would allow more flats to be built on the space, making the project more viable, and the round shape would ensure that as many flats as possible have maximum daylight regardless of whether they faced north (preferred in the southern hemisphere) or south. The flats, particularly those on the higher levels, would have extraordinary views, too, which wouldn’t hurt rentals.

The circular shape would also make the 173m high skyscraper more stable and would result in a smaller shadow line, which allowed the local municipality to look favourably on the project in spite of its massive dimensions.

The hollow core was necessary to conform to the building regulations of the time. In the 1970s in Johannesburg, bylaws stated that bathrooms and kitchens had to face onto natural light or be ventilated with air-conditioning or ventilation. It turned out that in terms of costs, it made more sense to give the building an open core, allowing each kitchen and bathroom to have windows exposed to natural light streaming in from above, than it would to ventilate each kitchen and bathroom in the building.

The building regulations in Johannesburg are such that if the kitchens and bathrooms are not air-conditioned or ventilated in terms of the regulations, they must face onto natural light. Natural light is established by means of a formula which lays down the angle by which the light enters the rooms. Since most of the kitchens and bathrooms by nature of the planning were on the inside of the apartment, it was necessary to introduce natural light by having an open core. – From “Ponte, The tallest residential building in Africa, Planning & Building Developments, 17 November, December 1975, p. 23

Ponte in the early eighties

I was born shortly after Ponte opened its doors to South Africa and its vast, cylindrical silhouette dominated the skyline of my early years. When I left school each day to spend afternoons in my dad’s office, waiting to go home, we’d see Ponte in the distance and my eyes were invariably drawn up, up, up.

Perhaps that’s why it I am still fascinated by the building today.

As a child, every trip to the CBD, Hillbrow, and Berea in the early to mid-eighties was thrilling. Bustling with people, a multitude of languages and experiences that simply didn’t exist in the northern suburbs, I would have been unaware that the area was changing, and with it, the make-up of Ponte was changing, too.

The elite whites who had initially moved into the luxurious apartments just a hop, skip and a jump away from the vibrant downtown began to flee for the suburbs and in some cases, new lands.

The reasons for the flight varied – some sources suggest poor management of the building; others say that the burgeoning business districts in the suburbs were a lure. The influx of non-whites thanks to the abolition of pass laws and general fear of the unknown no doubt played their parts, too. Ponte wasn’t abandoned, though. Other tenants moved into the building where rents were falling, and they although some suggest that most tenants were those who didn’t want to be scrutinised too closely by the unjust and brutal apartheid system of the time, or by the law in general, the tenants varied wildly. Mixed race families who feared separation (heaven forbid a black and white human should actually have a family together!), low-come families and so-called “illegal” immigrants trying to get by, passed gangsters and career criminals, drug lords and user, brothel owners and prostitutes in the increasingly unkempt corridors.

As the management of the building became less hands-on, the inner core began to fill with rubbish and the tower that once represented the aspirations of a country on the up-and-up became a symbol of the demise of South Africa.

A decade of decay

Ponte was built to house no more than 3500 people. When it was hijacked it was estimated over 10,000 people were living within its walls. — James Mangunza of Dlala Nje, in “Ponte Tower, Johannesburg’s ‘shanty town in the sky’, now has a waiting list to move in”by Benedict Brook

From that point, life in Ponte seemed to go from bad to worse.

The area around the building became a no-go area, and the building’s reputation reached mythical proportions. I say “mythical”, partly because the stories that circulated and continue to circulate about the building seem fictitious, and partly because they were – and still are  – orally transmitted, so whilst kernels of truth might be found, some of the details are possibly the work of a master urban tale teller, or 500 of them!

If the stories are to be believed, the lifts stopped working (a big deal in a structure with 54 floors and 1500-2000 residents. The inner core continued to be used as a rubbish dump, filling with waste of all descriptions up to the 14th floor (or the 7th floor, or the 5th – there seems to be some discrepancy on this subject). The building earned the name “Suicide City”, apparently because of all the people who leapt to their deaths, and who slowly decomposed in the core. The crime rate escalated and police, who couldn’t easily access the flats, apparently flew helicopters around the building trying to track down criminals, who hid by drawing curtains across their windows to prevent detection.

The logical next step: a prison

With so much crime associated with the building, and so many criminals and minor law-breakers operating in its walls, the powers that be played around with the idea of turning Ponte into a prison. Imagine. Africa’s – and the world’s – highest prison block…

The idea went nowhere and so did the building until around 2008 when new owners appeared on the scene.

An attempt at regeneration

London-based property group, The Kempston Group, who had owned the building since the mid-1990s, started to make changes to Ponte in 2001. They hired Elma and Danie Celliers, a husband-and-wife management team, to help clean up the Ponte, and they got to work with fervour. They were committed enough to make the building their home and they immediately started on the difficult job of fixing the damage to individual flats.

Jeez, it was bad. Nothing was working. In one flat I found a tomato plant growing out of the sink. It filled up the whole kitchen. It was a tree, that thing. Big tomatoes on it, too. — Danie Celliers, as quoted by Nickolaus Bauer, “Living the high life in a Ponte penthouse“, Mail & Guardian,  23 Nov 2012

The so-called “Red Ants”, a South African security company that also offered eviction services at the time, were called in to help evict unsavoury types, and the slow refurbishment of the building began.

By 2007, the couple had worked a minor miracle, fixing up apartments and turning Ponte into a safe, low-cost living space in the heart of Berea. 97% of the apartments were occupied, and it looked like Johannesburg had a new, affordable inner-city apartment block instead of a high-rise slum.

New owners

Things changed again in 2007. David Selvan and Nour Addine Ayyoub under Ayyoub’s company, Investagain, had grand plans to redevelop the building and given that the FIFA 2010 World Cup – hosted by South Africa – was just around the corner, they managed to gain a redevelopment commitment from the Johannesburg Development Agency, too, who planned to invest around R900m into Ponte’s immediate surrounds, including Hillbrow and Berea. The building was to be called “New Ponte”.

Around 1500 tenants were given notice and floors 11-34 were stripped, ready for renovation.

Then the sub-prime mortgage debacle, that affected not only the US, but South Africa, too, arrived. The banks pulled out, early investors and contractors lost large sums, the project was cancelled and ownership reverted to the previous owner.

Ponte rises from the ashes

Ponte languished, it’s massive rooftop advertising sign the only real income-generator (apparently the sign – currently the Vodacom sign – generated R500,000 a month), but the 2010 World Cup seemed to have been a catalyst of sorts.

The Kempston Group once again began work on the building, hiring another husband-and-wife team, Ria and Jaap Breedt. When the couple began managing the tower in June 2009, only 79 out of the 494 units were occupied

By 2011, almost all 54 floors had been renovated and refurbished, with new electrical wiring and waste pipe laid on each floor. The elevator death-traps that had worked only intermittently in the Ponte’s dark years were replaced with more reliable models, and the building was turned into one of the safest spaces in Berea, thanks to strict security that included fingerprint access at all entry points and 24/7 guards.

A team led by Quinton Oosthuizen, the construction and maintenance manager, took on the unenviable task of cleaning out the inner core, which apparently took a good three years and hundreds of workers using not only their hands, but machines to clear the filth and debris to reveal the uneven, rocky floor below.

It was nasty; we pulled out some very funny things. Anything from mattresses, rubble, loose steel, kitchen and bathroom fittings – even dead stray cats. — Quinton Oosthuizen, quoted in “Johannesburg’s Ponte City: ‘the tallest and grandest urban slum in the world’ – a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 33“, Mail & Guardian, 11 May 2015

Fast-forward to 2018 and the building has a waiting list. The Breedts continue to manage the building strictly. They say that its easy for a building as large as Ponte to spiral out of control – who knows who might be hiding where and what they might be doing? In addition to surprise inspections in the apartments, Ria Breedt insists that visitors are out by 9pm and that any overnight visitors are pre-registered. Any foreigners visiting the building have to provide proof that they have a visa and the security team makes a note of each document’s expiration date .

Some say the measures are draconian, but it sounds as if many people in the Ponte would rather live with such strict security measures than in the hell-hole that the building once was. Having said that, critics of the Breedt’s approach certainly exist.

The core still needs regular cleaning. Although it was cleared out, some residents continue to use it as an informal rubbish dump. Falling glass, KFC buckets, foul-smelling nappies (baby’s diapers), blood-soaked sanitary pads, used condoms – all these and more are the dangers that come from above threatening standing in the core and gazing up at the light-filled opening. You’re likely to be knocked out by a falling missile on the outside of the building, too.

And you haven’t really lived at Ponte until you’ve narrowly escaped a serious head wound from a flying missile that shatters on the ground centimetres away. Just the other day I had a close shave with what looked like a guava-flavoured ice lolly that exploded on the walkway. — Nickolaus Bauer, “Living the high life in a Ponte penthouse“, Mail & Guardian,  23 Nov 2012

Many people focus on the make-up of the building’s residents – a mix of the (relatively) rich and young on the current penthouse floors, wealthy foreigners from Europe, aspiring middle-class families, low-income families and individuals, and creatives who want to stay in the city. People talk of the black-white divide, of building managers speaking to people differently based on their skin-colour and their income.

Worth watching: Philip Bloom’s mini-documentary on Ponte

A building full of stories

We’ll probably never know all the stories told within the walls of Ponte, but Jeff Blumenkrantz, an American actor, composer and lyricist – who never lived in the building – wrote a song that tells a tale could very well have taken place somewhere on the upper floors. He was invited to write a song for a benefit concert for the organisation “Broadway in South Africa” in 2008, and as he tells it, he was struck by the drawing of an eleven-year-old girl. She had drawn a “row of buildings, but one was significantly taller than the others, with the word Voda across the top. I was intrigued by the ‘Voda Building,’ and so began my research into The Ponte City Tower.”

The result was a song called “The Core of Ponte”. I confess that I cried when I listened to it for the first time, and my brain immediately began to project images into my head of the family, the flight, the fall, the return.

If you’ve made it this far down this post, take 4 minutes and listen to Jeff singing “The Core of Ponte”. As he says, the song works best when you have an understanding of the history of the building.

And you can read Jeff’s background on the story on his website.

Still a city of dreams

In spite of these problems, of the air-born rubbish, Ponte is, for me, a story of hope. It’s a hero’s journey of sorts, and Ponte is at the centre of the tale. It’s a tale of a princess who had everything, who slowly became shabby, who found herself violated and maligned, who was rescued only to be abandoned for a second time, then rescued again, and now, for the first time, the princess is an ordinary person, living an ordinary life, filled with ups-and-downs, and making a contribution to her community.

Anthropomorphising a building. Terrible. That’s the oral storyteller in me, I know.

But re-reading my little princess story, I can’t help but think that it’s a bit like the tale of South Africa in some respects. Ponte started life as a symbol of white elitism, but now it’s something that stands for decline, and resilience, and resurrection. It IS hopeful. Sure, it’s a bit gritty, and imperfect, but it also has one helluva history, and an exciting future. Just like Johannesburg. Just like South Africa.