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Aiton Court
Hillbrow, Johannesburg, Gauteng

People:

Angus Greig STEWART: Architect
Bernard Stanley COOKE: Architect

Date:1937
Client:A Griffin
Type:Flats
Status:Extant
Street:Pietersen Street


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26°11'35.94" S 28°02'46.81" E
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(SAAR Apr 1938:105-12 ill; Arch Rev Oct 1944:121; Herbert 1975:144; RAU 1977:71)

Notes from THE MODERN FLAT 1948

Though Johannesburg is a sub-tropical zone it lies 6,000 ft. (1,829 m) above sea-level, and enjoys a temperate climate. The high altitude of the sun means that in summer large glass areas are necessary to admit even a little direct sunlight. The whole north wall of each flat is glazed, except the bottom panel which is cellulose-finished steel.

TYPE. One-room flats and single rooms for office workers and young professional people. Moderate rents.

ACCESS. Access gallery; stair, lift and escape stair.

NO. OF FLATS. The building contains three floors of flats at the front, four floors of flats at the back, with three floors of single rooms above. Servants' quarters on roof. Twenty-five one-room flats; eighteen single rooms.

AREA. Area of site, 5,200 sq. ft. (483 sq. m). Area of building. 3,900 sq. ft. (362.3 sq. m) Area of site built on, 75%.

SERVICES. All plumbing in large service ducts.

CONSTRUCTION. Reinforced concrete frame with brick filling.

FINANCE. Private enterprise.

Ref: Yorke, FRS and Gibberd, F. 1948. THE MODERN FLAT. London: The Architectural Press. p 156

Submitted by William MARTINSON

________________________________________

Extract from a renewal proposal by Hannah LE ROUX.

Aiton Court is an apartment building in Johannesburg’s high-rise flatland of Hillbrow. When the building was designed in the mid 1930’s , it developed the formal approach of the seminal Peterhouse, which, with vehicular circulation at ground floor level, strip windows, a roof terrace with solarium and a entrance hood and v-pole explicitly cites the work of LE CORBUSIER. The architects of Aiton Court were Angus STEWART and Bernard COOKE; COOKE had worked on the drawings of Peterhouse, designed with Rex MARTIENSSEN and John FASSLER.

MARTIENSSEN was the leader of the so-called Transvaal Group, to whom LE CORBUSIER had dedicated the second volume of the Ouevre Complet.

The images of Aiton Court were similarly pulled into the circulation of modern movement literature. First MARTIENSSEN published the building in the South African Architectural Record of 1936, and then it appeared in the Architectural Review of 1937, to be republished in l’Architecture d’Aujourdhui.

Aiton Court was pioneering in its architects’ adoption of a modernist formal language of plastered surfaces, modular steel windows, a roof terrace and elaborated circulation elements, which reflect the Transvaal Group’s preoccupation with a visual modernity.

Aiton Court, however, can be located in another mobile locus. The production of the pre- and post-war cbd of Johannesburg relied largely on capital from émigré families who were shifting reserves from a risky Europe to the security of brick and mortar investment.

The dimensions of Aiton Court reflect a highly speculative approach to building, whereby the land was built over at a very high density. The relatively light structure and repetitive elements allowed an economy in construction that was attractive to developers. The apartments are arranged in two parallel blocks, a four storey one on the northern street edge and an eight storey block on the south side. While the front block is supposedly designed to allow sun to enter the lower floors of the rear building, this relied on fact that the adjacent buildings were low.

In the 1960’s, a much higher building went up to the east and closed off the open side of the courtyard. The apartments were designed to tight minima for single occupancies. The upper floors of the rear block contain rooms with shared ablutions, while the apartments are studio flats with an enclosed corner for cooking. The position of the caretaker’s flat at ground floor level, overlooking the street and entrance foyer allows for substantial control of the building.

The building was felt to be an open and welcoming place. Herbert PRINS, an architect who lived there in the 1950’s, said “it was a beautiful place. You came in through a red pivot door, that was usually open, and there was a fountain in the courtyard”. The 1936 Record article also pays attention to the articulation of the building’s entrance sequence. The western party wall, against which the circulation from the street to the staircase and the linking passage between blocks was set, was painted a rich green colour. The other differentiated elements were the wall of the solarium and the servants’ quarters, which were a light green.

The servants’ room represented a particularly local inversion. Up until the 1960’s, most cleaning staff were male African migrant workers. In the wake of slum clearance campaigns in the 1920’s in which many black residents of the city were moved from the centre, most cleaners lived in accommodation in the buildings in which they worked, returning home to rural areas only for annual leave. The visibility of these workers riled colonial sensibilities and they were located in either in the rear of the property, or, when land values precluded this, on the rooftop in rooms set back from the street line. Where in most cities there are penthouses, in Johannesburg are tiny, high windows.

In the post second world war period, Johannesburg’s flatlands were rapidly developed. The smaller prewar buildings remained in the hands of family investors, while the postwar buildings were managed by agents and corporate owners. The older buildings became subject to rent control. It was impossible to raise rents beyond inflation rates, and then only by appeal to a board. Finding capital for major repairs, such as to waterproofing or lifts, was difficult. With the return on investment no longer secure, smaller buildings like Aiton Court became subject to speculation. By the late 1970’s, the building was owned by an Afrikaans man, Mr Coetzer. During this period it became a brothel. According to Morri s (1999), Hillbrow’s sex industry was the business that grew the most in the 1980’s. The accommodation of sex workers in blocks of flats at times happened inadvertently, but, as the area’s demographics changed, they became a profitable class of tenant. From the early 1980’s, Johannesburg’s inner city was becoming racially mixed. The process was an uneven one. The suburb was still deemed a white group area, and landlords were breaking the law by accommodating tenants from other race groups. Their motives were mixed: for some landlords it was profitable as the new tenants, with limited options to move to could be charged higher rentals, while in some cases, faced with the flight of middle class white tenants to the suburbs, and with illegal activities being conducted by some remaining ones, landlords felt forced to accept Indian and coloured tenants to fill their flats.

The mother of Aiton Court’s current owner was one such “illegal” black tenant. Of Malaysian descent, she managed to find a flat to rent in Constantine, the building across the road from Aiton Court. In a police raid in the early 1980’s she and her husband were evicted from the flat, and they moved, in desperation, into Aiton Court. She then became the caretaker of the building and, in her daughter’s words, “found a cesspool of crime and cleaned it out”. In the mid 1980’s she bought the building and proceeded to allow it to be used in a strategic way, so that it became a strategic point in the desegregation of Hillbrow.

One of the organisations that benefited from the activities at Aiton Court was Actstop, a support network for tenants who faced eviction from inner city flats on the grounds of race. The organisation found legal representation for its members and delayed or prevented prosecution for many of them through the 1980’s. In other cases, Actstop organised rent boycotts to protest against poor conditions and high rentals in some buildings.

During the 1990’s, Aiton Court, perhaps by virtue of its benign relationship with Actstop and its ownership by a resident Indian family, remained a relatively secure and well-managed building. Gates and a security guard’s booth were put up. The single biggest change was the introduction of faith based activities on the ground floor of the building. An Islamic prayer facility, known as the Hidayat Jamaat Khanna, was located in two flats on the ground floor that had been combined. On Fridays, to cater for a large congregation, the guards set up a portable mihrab, loudspeaker and carpets under the portico on the street edge, and drape canvas over the bars to create privacy on the north. The entire courtyard area becomes a mosque, marked to the public only by the sound of the call to prayer and the green paint on the ground floor columns. After the service the family serves a hot meal to congregants and the indigent. Another community service that has been offered is free legal and counseling advice, from a room in the rear of the prayer space.

For some of the tenants of Aiton Court, the building, despite i t s poor physical maintenance, is a desirable place to be. The low rentals are a significant reason for this. The landlords are also understanding in the face of tenants’ financial crises. Anne-Marie has been in the building for nearly ten years, and brought her daughter up there. They stay in a studio flat in the north block. They feel the building is secure, and people are trusting enough to leave washing to dry on the solarium terrace.

Bibliography
Morris, Alan. 1999. Bleakness and Light: Inner city transition in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Press.
Architectural Review 1938
South African Architectural Record 1937
Interviews with Rehana Rawat, Yousof Rawat, Herbert PRINS and Anne-Marie.

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. 1993. Johannesburg Style - Architecture & Society 1880s - 1960s. Cape Town: David Phillip. pg 169, 170, 171, 172, 226
Herbert, Gilbert. 1975. Martienssen & the international style: The modern movement in South African architecture. Cape Town - Rotterdam: AA Balkema. pg 142, 144
Yorke, FRS & Gibberd, F. 1948. The modern flat. London: The Architectural Press. pg 156

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