Decor & Design, Travel

Hidden Secrets

Enjoy an excerpt from noteworthy collector’s tome, Hidden Johannesburg.
Alan Proust

Johannesburg: Egoli to some, Jozi to others. Once a mining town, now the most important commercial city in Africa. It’s been home to renegades and rogues, colonialists and capitalists, the dispossessed and the newly enriched. Today it’s populated by those who call themselves Africans or Afrikaners, by blacks, whites and every shade inbetween, and by immigrants from all over.

Enjoy an excerpt from noteworthy collector’s tome, Hidden Johannesburg, in which– alongside superb photography from Alain Proust – well-known author Paul Duncan offers a snapshot of 28 of Joburg’s architecturally and culturally significant buildings.

There is always way more to see when you explore a city on foot, keeping to the pavements, crossing its streets from side to side, and making detours to catch a glimpse of something overlooked previously, or to take a short cut. Suddenly, you become aware of looming façades, their adornments, the detail, door cases and windows, roofscapes, symmetry, scale, monumentality, light and shade – in fact, all those things that give buildings their presence and underpin their contexts and their place in the world. And there’s that constant question asked more out of curiosity than from any particular concern: what does the inside look like? If there’s an interesting façade there’s probably an even more fascinating interior. And if the exterior is intact, what’s happened inside? What’s the story behind how this particular building came to stand here and play a role in a city plonked down and grown like some hybrid maverick in the hot African veld?

Johannesburg – old Johannesburg – is no exception to any of this. It may be difficult now to be a pedestrian (try it though; I did) in the CBD and the old suburbs nearby, like Hillbrow or Doornfontein, other than on an organized tour, but in other places – Newtown for example, and lately, Braamfontein – there’s been a revival of cultural and mercantile life leading to a revitalizing of neighbourhoods and an almost dizzying injection of activity that’s woken them from near-death experiences.

But Johannesburg is a city that only truly reveals itself when you look upwards – on the outside anyway. Not only are there plenty of magisterial façades festooned with a wealth of detail, much of it preserved because it’s out of reach, but also there, writ large, is a plausible visual microcosm of Western architecture between the two last decades of the nineteenth century and those at the middle of the twentieth. Much of it apes its peers in sophisticated, fashionable European metropolises like London or Berlin or Paris, or American cities like New York or Chicago. That such a new city was able to do this so quickly hints at its resources both financial and physical. They had the cash to do it, and the spacious land. Look at the Rand Club: a puffed-up building with three different street façades, on a site where, not 20 years before it was built, there had been just open veld. Much of early Johannesburg, including the Rand Club, went through successive waves of building construction as the earliest wooden shacks and corrugated iron-roofed shanties were transformed into more permanent, two- or three-storey brick-and-mortar structures with cast-iron verandahs templated out of a catalogue in the Victorian style, only to be replaced by statelier buildings that, indicating a mature city at full throttle, ran the gamut of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century architectural styles from fin de siècle to beaux arts, Arts and Crafts to neoclassical, designed by architects who had distinguished themselves either in Cape Town or in the offices of well-known, even famous, British practices.

Most often, and from the close of the Anglo-Boer War, Johannesburg’s buildings are an architectural representation of British imperial hegemony; City Hall for example, or the buildings of Herbert Baker that today seem to be extraordinarily non-indigenous white elephants in territories far from home. Baker’s picturesque ‘country houses’, like Northwards and Glenshiel, spring to mind, until you look closely and notice that they respond to their environments both functionally and respectfully. And sometimes, here and there, you stumble on a building that’s transitional; not yet distanced enough from that ‘old world’ and still tentatively embracing a new global language, like Gordon Leith’s Freemason’s Hall. Now and again there are buildings that are in tune with, even herald, a brave new world and are revolutionary; Leck & Emley’s Corner House is the best example of this. Most often, they just ape the fashion of the day and are first-class examples of sparkling new styles of design, interpreting international optimism with attention to local needs or bullishness. Johannesburg’s Art Deco buildings fall into this category and there are some remarkable survivors of the period, like Gleneagles apartment block in Killarney, and Anstey’s Building, on the corner of Jeppe and Joubert Streets in the CBD. Sometimes they’re part of an attempt to inculcate into the cityscape a national architectural style – as in the building boom of the 1930s. Leith, again, is a key protagonist, along with Gerard Moerdijk, their opus in this respect being their work in association as the architects of Park Station.

I’m making very broad sweeps here. But a walk around the CBD is like finding yourself in a labyrinthine textbook discovering or uncovering signs and symbols and, learning to read them, being enabled to understand ever more the contexts of the city and its history. It’s an uplifting experience simply because so much of early Johannesburg is still there, even though business has mostly moved on to places like Sandton, leaving these old neighbourhoods and their monuments in decline. The CBD is key in this respect, as are Hillbrow and Doornfontein. And while Hidden Johannesburg looks at a variety of buildings in those areas, it also reaches into Parktown, Westcliff and further afield, into Killarney, Kew, Orange Grove, Linksfield Ridge, Victory Park and Orchards. Names barely able to do justice to the evolution of these streets and suburbs.

This book, however, isn’t a crusade for the restoration and revitalization of Johannesburg’s old buildings. Indeed much of its content doesn’t need any of that. In fact, only one building featured, Park Station, is derelict and in need of attention. Yes, I could have put in more of the latter sort as there are plenty of them, but public access is difficult and anyway the whole point of this book is to provide a list of ‘hidden’ places for people to visit and celebrate – places perhaps known only to a few but which tell a story that brings the city’s contexts to life. Further afield still, Hidden Johannesburg heads out to Bedfordview and Midrand, Boksburg and Soweto, everything in it in some way a contributing feature of Johannesburg’s multifaceted story. I know there’s way more to see than the list of buildings pulled together here, but it’s a start and with any luck all those tantalizing suggestions and further recommendations made by everybody who helped me with the contents can be given a starring role in a future publication. This book only scratches the surface.

Hidden Johannesburg (Penguin Random House South Africa; RRP R290) is available at all leading bookstores. Purchase your copy of Hidden Johannesburg here