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Ponte Building
Johannesburg, Gauteng

M FELDMAN: Design Architect



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26°11'26.31" S 28°03'25.85" E Alt: 1769m

The tallest residential building in Africa. Originally planned to be 64 floors high but was scaled back due to fire fighting concerns of the council. It was finally 54 floors with 7 below ground.

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Article by Boris Gorelik which first appeared in Rapport on 7 September 2014 as 'Ponte facto, omnes transit'

A hope for Hillbrow: Ponte shows the way to a better future

'Ponte is like our child', says Ria Breedt, a bespectacled lady with manners of a stern schoolteacher. She and her husband, a towering and even graver-looking Jaap Breedt, run one of Johannesburg's notorious landmarks.

Every morning on weekdays, they leave their apartment on a top floor, zoom down in a lift and head past a burly guard for their office behind an iron-barred door. Through large windows, they can monitor the flow of visitors to the premises.

Five years ago, the owners of Ponte hired the husband-and-wife team to give the building a 'facelift', as Mrs Breedt puts it. 'Resuscitation' would be a better word.

Ponte City, the tallest residential tower on the African continent, was erected at the height of a rental boom in Hillbrow and Berea. Developers competed with each other, putting up gigantic blocks of flats on the ridge to meet the demand.

It culminated in the construction of this 54-storeyed cylinder of concrete and steel. The structure was called Ponte, the Latin for 'bridge' — obviously, the one between earth and heaven. The first residents moved in exactly forty years ago.

The market took a downturn after the Soweto uprising. Middle-class tenants began to relocate elsewhere. And Ponte, advertised as the 'pulsating prestigious landmark', was suddenly not as prestigious anymore.

By the mid 1990s, Ponte was populated mostly by illegal immigrants from French-speaking African countries. Once the surrounding area turned into a dangerous slum, gangs took over the building. Drug dealing and prostitution thrived behind its grey walls.

Most South Africans have come to regard Ponte as an ungodly tower of Babel, with scenes of degeneration and decay straight from the grim Sin City comics.

The building changed hands. Managers came and went. Outrageous projects of regeneration were conceived, publicised and abandoned. At one stage, it was nearly transformed into a privately run prison for 5,000 inmates.

By 2009, the new owners realised that it would be possible to make Ponte simply a clean, decent place to live. The Breedts, with their background in construction and hospitality industries, were the right people for the job.

'On two floors, walls and partitions had been demolished', remembers Ria Breedt. 'My husband had to rezone the area and build the flats from scratch.'

They also had to repaint all the flats, lay down kilometres of wiring and piping and install new lifts.

The original Ponte City was almost self-sufficient. It had over fifty shops, restaurants and banking facilities. But by the time the new managers first entered the building, the commercial area had been deserted. A couple of shops have been opened since then.

Once Ponte boasted 'the country's most exciting penthouses', complete with saunas, a private braai patio and a roof garden set just a few metres lower than the Top of Africa viewpoint. These luxurious three-level dwellings had to go. They've been converted into three- and four-bedroom apartments.

There were times when the flashing 50-tonne, six-storey high advertising signage on the roof used to earn Ponte more than all the rents combined. Not anymore.

'We have strong rental income from the residential and the commercial sections which exceeds the signage income', states Jason Kruger of Kempston Group, the company that owns Ponte.

All the 482 flats, from tiny studios to the big ones right at the top, are occupied. 'We have no vacancies at the moment', Breedt says proudly.

Rents start from R2300, for a bachelor pad. To stay in one of the biggest flats, you'll have to part with R5600 each month. These apartments come with some of the best panoramic views in Johannesburg. The continuous row of windows is like a windshield of a giant helicopter soaring above the city.

The managers' concern with safety borders on fixation. Cameras monitor the goings-on all over the building. Guards patrol the floors every hour.

The managers have a database of 3500 fingerprints, which allows identifying the tenants at the entrance. This helps to control access to the building and prevent overcrowding of flats. In the past, up to ten people would huddle in a one-bedroom unit.

If you're a guest, you have to sign a register and leave your ID with the guards downstairs. Then you pass through the massive turnstiles.

'We need this also to stop people from disappearing in this gigantic building', explains Breedt. 'They'll just hide somewhere, and we won’t be able to find them.'

Malcolm Rees, a financial journalist for The Sunday Times, resides in a two-bedroom penthouse in Ponte. He believes that this building is far more secure than the neighbouring, rather 'dodgy' area:

'Ironically, Ponte is one of the safest places to be in Johannesburg — once you're inside. We've been staying here for almost three years, and nothing has ever happened.'

Victoria Schneider, a German-born tenant, rents a studio. She came to live in South Africa last year and settled in Ponte because she didn't want to 'lock herself away in the suburbs'. Being here gives her a chance to get to know African people better.

'I feel very safe', she says. 'There’s a 24-hour security in Ponte. And when you’re on the premises, it's 100% safe.'

The official website of the City of Johannesburg enthuses that Ponte has become a 'sought-after address', 'home to families and young professionals'. But although the building is run at full capacity, and married couples with children comprise a large share of tenants, their incomes are comparatively low.

There is a social gap between the majority of residents and the 'haut monde', middle-class residents of Ponte's penthouses.

One of the few places where they come into contact is the lift cars. The walls are covered with heavy-duty fabric to protect the lifts from defacement. But vandals manage to cut through.

A more dangerous kind of menace in Ponte is falling objects. The notice at the entrance is meant to discharge the management from responsibility for 'the damage from things thrown out of the windows by residents'.

If you pass the sealed lifts that used to go to the now defunct shopping centre and walk down a smelly iron staircase, you reach the most impressive part of Ponte: the core.

Ponte is hollow inside. It's an enormous upright tube with 54 rows of windows going up into the skies. The open core in the centre is nearly 30 metres in diameter. From the inside, the core looks like a futuristic coliseum. When you step on the rough rocky floor, you find yourself on the arena.

In the bad old days, a heap of rubbish and debris piled up at the bottom. It was cleaned during the renovation.

'I'm not very popular amongst a quarter of the tenants', says Ria Breedt.

My conversations with Ponte residents show that she, probably, underestimates the number of her critics.

'The management runs the building strictly, which is good', says Victoria Schneider. 'But the way they treat some of the tenants is inappropriate. It seems that they speak to white residents differently. I don't think that if I broke a rule, they wouldn't treat me like that.'

Many residents resent the monthly inspections of their flats or the fact that the managers exercise such control over their lives. They concede these harsh measures were justified in Ponte's inglorious days. But the heavy-handed approach is outdated, they believe.

'There's definitely a need for tight regulations here', says Malcolm Rees. 'But the rules can be quite oppressive. You can't have guests in your flat after nine, for example. On the other hand, I suppose it's one of the things you have to accept in this area.'

There is even talk of unfair evictions. Godfrey Tshivase says he was forced to leave in the middle of the month:

'They didn't give me a proper warning. I never got a chance to talk to them, to say something for myself. Tenants are not happy with the management's attitude, but they have no choice. There's no other place like this.'

'I do have many very strict rules', says Breedt. 'And if tenants don't want to stick to them, they have to leave.'

In the Hillbrow-Berea area, Ponte is an anomaly: a safe, well-maintained block of flats. For all that, its regeneration has made an impact on its surroundings. Several buildings are being renovated. And, reportedly, the police patrol the streets more regularly than before.

'Ponte is a beacon of hope for residents of Hillbrow', Michal Luptak believes.

With journalist Nickolaus Bauer, also a tenant in this building, Luptak opened Dlala Nje, a community centre on Ponte's ground floor. It attracts residents of other buildings as well.

Luptak and Bauer started it less than two years ago, and it’s already a self-sustaining enterprise. Luptak works there full time.

A former business development and strategy consultant for Ernst & Young, he left his cushy job and has never looked back.

'We sustain ourselves by selling experiences', he explains. 'We take people to some of the most perceivably dangerous parts of Joburg on foot. Our tours of Hillbrow are always fully booked. They include a walk around Ponte.'

Among the experiences they offer is a culinary tour of Yeoville, where you can try dishes of various African cuisines, and an ‘immersion’ into the inner-city life, when you have to survive on pocket money and get around on kombis, buses and trains.

'Dlala Nje is a business for profit', says Luptak. 'We identify opportunity in an under-resourced community and capitalise on this. It's not a charity. We don't provide temporary solutions to permanent problems by giving out free stuff. We're helping the community but it’s also a sustainable business.'

Luptak and Bauer are planning to launch an online radio and recording studio next door to the community centre. They will target residents of Ponte and the entire neighbourhood. They've already started searching for talent by hosting shows and competitions at Dlala Nje.

'We're entrenched in the community', notes Luptak. 'It's not like we live in Sandton and travel here every day. We live in Ponte. And this is the only way a project like this will work.'

They try to pack the space up with as many activities as possible: games, pool, basketball, the Internet, library, storytelling and film screenings. It's a healthy alternative to drugs and violence that plague the streets of Hillbrow.

Victoria Schneider knows this area well. She often gets around on foot or in minibus taxis.

'I agree that Ponte represents hope', she says. 'It shows the direction in which the other buildings in Hillbrow can develop. But I don’t think that Ponte has uplifted the area. In fact, I think Hillbrow is not ready for a big change yet. There's a very harsh reality here.'

(Submitted by William MARTINSON March 2014)

For more photographs by Boris Gorelik visit his album.

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

Chipkin, Clive M. 2008. Johannesburg Transition - Architecture & Society 1950 - 2000. Johannesburg: STE Publishers. pg 398-399 ill, 404 ill, 404-405, 408, 477