Ponte City – The Urban Slum
This building got taken hijacked by gangsters who stripped the entered building including the elevators. They charged people to stay here and drug dealing and prostitution thrived behind its grey walls. Of course there was no maintenance for the building so people threw their trash in the middle and even suicidal people through them selves over. Bodies and trash piles up 14 floors. This is the story of Ponte City, Johannesburg.
In the early 1970s, architect Mannie Feldman designed Ponte City with Manfred Hermer and Rodney Grosskopff. It’s not exactly African Vernacular Architecture, but the unusual design of this building is shaped like a toilet roll because the local regulations at the time required kitchens and bathrooms to have windows for light and ventilation. The design team designed an open centre void which allowed light and ventilation into both sides of the apartments.
There are 482 apartments of different sizes including studio, 2 bedroom and 3 bedroom apartments. Because of the circular shape the building acts like a wind vacuum circling the building and a loud hissing sound can be heard around the external windows, especially when opened. ‘Ponte’is latin for ‘bridge’; the building was known to symbolize the bridge between Heaven and Earth.
The typical floor of Pote City has a circular lobby/corridor where the apartments are on the external side with luxurious city views. The corridor sides have views to the open core on the internal side. Oddly, the open core or void, descends down onto uneven natural rock below. It’s bewildering to wonder what the architect originally intended to be at the bottom.
Perhaps a garden would not get enough light to allow plants and trees to grow, so the natural ground was enough to settle the decision, which is kind of odd. There are other stories floating around that the architect intended a ski slope to be at the bottom, but that did not happen.
Communal areas for the building includes the capacity of over fifty shops, restaurants and banking facilities. The bottom size does not look big enough or even cold enough for a ski slope.
Ponte City rises 55 stories and is 173 m (567.6 ft) high, still making it the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa.
When the building opened in 1975, Ponte City, was considered a prestigious and luxury place to live with apartments for the wealthy because of the breath taking views across the center of Johannesburg. Situated in Hillbrow, the address was desirable being located 35 minutes from the OR Tambo International Airport and very close to the inner city. Hillbrow, back in these days was a vibrant multicultural area full of coffee shops and bookshops.
@architectrussell Do you recognise this building? It’s been in many futuristic or Apocalyptic movies. More vids on this fascinating building, Ponte City, coming soon. #johannesburg #southafrica #skyscraper ♬ Blade Runner (End Titles) – Vangelis
“I lined the walls of the penthouses with shaggy dog orange carpet—it was all very posh…Everyone wanted to say they’d stayed in the tallest apartment building in Africa.” – Manfred Hermer, Architect
After the Soweto uprising, in Johannesburg, the market took a downturn. By the 1980s crime rate soared at the tower and the surrounding neighbourhood. The wealthy people living inside Ponte Tower began to move elsewhere in the city. Hillbrow and its surrounding area, started to get flooded by immigrants from other countries in Africa. Drugs, poverty, prostitution, gun crime and urban degradation were rife. Gang activity had caused the crime rate to soar in Ponte Tower’s neighbourhood.
What is a Hijacked Building?
During the 1990s Ponte City was hijacked by gangsters. A hijacked building means people (or gangsters) who are not the legal owners of the building, take over a building and collect rent from people living there. Usually, the tenents do not have much of a choice, because they are threatened by the gangsters who take over the building and demand the rent.
Hijacking is what happened to Ponte City and the building was stripped out of just about everything, including the elevators so the hijackers could sell off everything they can, to make money. Life was very sour for the innocent people who were already living inside the building. Crime, drug dealers and prostitution thrived, behind the grey concrete walls.
Obviously, the hijackers didn’t help with maintenance, such as garbage disposal, so trash was simply thrown out of the windows or over the core on the inside of the building. People even committed suicide over into the core as well. By the early nineties Bodies and trash piles up 14 floors.
Send in Rambo?
In 2001 a large South African registered company took over the building while it was hijacked. They did not expect 10,000 squatters inside the building. They did not know what to do and how to come about flushing out the hijackers and all the crime inside.
Come 2001 the government wanted to turn Ponte City into a prison. With all the gangsters inside, the govenment wanted to go in and simply lock everyone in. But there were innocent people and children in there. So that idea was shelved.
In 2003 the government hired some professional evictionists. Rumours started to emerge that all the 10,000 people inside were evicted in one night, but this is more like a Rambo movie. The head evictionist was a clever ex-cop and he informed everyone to pay their rent properly, then they will start giving people electricity, water, elevators, etc. Most people could not afford this, so gradually people started to move out. From this moment onwards the building managed to be cleared out after in 3 years. By 2006 Ponte City was completely cleared out of squatters and rubbish inside.
Ponte City Cleared Out and ready for rent
The FIFA World Cup was announced in 2004 and people started to become interested in the Hillbrow area. Investors saw it as an opportunity for development. Now, people started to move back into the area and into previously unoccupied buildings.
2006 two germans investors wanted to buy Ponte City. They had a vision of turning it back to what it was back in the day. The investors advertised the building as “Champayne in the Sky” and started renovating the building. Unfortunately, due to arguments in court with the building owners rights, Ponte city apartments are for rent only, not to buy.
Currently, Ponte City is owned by Kempston Group. Now, Ponte City Apartments provide affordable & safe residence to the people of Johannesburg and the surrounding area.
A Filmmakers Heaven, Ponte City
Ponte City remains a filmmaker’s dream with many hollywood blockbusters being filmed here including Resident Evil: “The Final Chapter” (2016), District 9 (2009) and Chappie (2015). The building is so iconic it’s been used for apologetic and sci-fi movies. and was also heavily influenced by the the 2012 science fiction action film, Dredd filmed in South Africa.
Russell M. Henderson is a practicing RIBA Chartered Architect based in Tanzania, East Africa.
Russell (Architect Russell) also makes videos on YouTube , TikTok Instagram & Skillshare sharing thoughtful, honest and pragmatic knowledge while working and living abroad.
Architect Russell Uncensored is podcast talking about an architect’s life unfiltered. The education of 7 years to controversial topics such as RIBA and ARB, to unusual architect experience abroad like in Bangkok and Tanzania. This is content never before released on any platform and you can only get it here first. The truth through the eyes of Architect Russell, unfiltered and uncensored.
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